Free agency has slowed to a virtual crawl, with Dont’a Hightower returning to the New England Patriots taking one of the last big names off the market. The NFL draft picture very much is coming into focus because of this. There are a handful of prospects whose medical situations need clarity, and a few more who still have important pro days looming. But most of the hay is in the barn at this point.
For the first time in this draft cycle we have a nearly complete picture of which players could fall to which teams and what their biggest needs are. This is when you really can start paying attention to mock drafts — draft range, team fits and the like. Also, the information gathered from teams is getting better the closer we get to the draft.
What’s most interesting is that the quarterbacks in this class, such as Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, still have some potentially solid landing spots but might have to be patient for their chance to shine.
Note: A few pending moves — what the Patriots do with Malcolm Butler, and Tony Romo’s fate, for instance — could wreak havoc with this draft. Such is life. Consider yourself properly warned. And one more note: The hype surrounding Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon is real, and we’re told that teams are starting to grow more comfortable with the idea of taking him high in this draft. For now, he did not crack our top 32 picks. But that could change by April 27.
1. Cleveland Browns — Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett
There’s no change. Why should it? The Browns are not trading this pick for Jimmy Garoppolo or any other quarterback. (We don’t think.) This pick has remained the same in every mock we’ve crafted of the 2017 NFL draft since last year. Garrett can help reshape a defense that should be aggressive under coordinator Gregg Williams with a suddenly strong front seven that would feature Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, Emmanuel Ogbah, Christian Kirksey and Garrett.
2. San Francisco 49ers — North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky
They’ve made a flurry of moves and yet haven’t found their franchise quarterback (sorry, Brian Hoyer). Could they still make a move with the Washington Redskins for Kirk Cousins? Yes, but that could happen in a few weeks, after the draft or even next year. That’s too tough to project right now.
In lieu of that, Kyle Shanahan will want to start working with a QB who could fill that void. Trubisky has all the tools but is severely under-experienced and will need to expand what he can do in terms of reading the field, recognizing pressure and getting rid of the ball on target. He has all the elements Shanahan seeks in a QB to put it together in time.
3. Chicago Bears — LSU S Jamal Adams
This is a tricky call here, as the Bears need immediate contributors and some of their biggest needs don’t align with what the board offers. But Adams is a ready-made starter who can play deep (did you see all those long passes allowed at the end of the season?) or up in the box (that run defense still needs improvement). Sources inside the LSU program say Adams will step onto an NFL roster with the mentality and maturity of a fifth-year pro and be a tone setter from Day 1.
He’d be the enforcer the Bears haven’t had since Mike Brown left almost a decade ago. If Ohio State’s Malik Hooker tests well medically, he could be in play here also, but the Bears might want more of a sure thing with a head coach and general manager perhaps on the hot seat. They’ll also look hard at Stanford’s Solomon Thomas to help upgrade the defensive line.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars — LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Executive vice president Tom Coughlin has preached toughness every time he has spoken to the media since taking over his new job, mentioning how it appeared the team lacked it last season. “You have to finish,” Coughlin said, and there’s perhaps no better finisher in the 2017 class than Fournette. If they can keep his weight around 235 pounds, Fournette can be the hammer in Doug Marrone’s offense to help keep pressure off Blake Bortles, who is entering a critical season to prove his doubters wrong, and give the Jags a back to fit the four-minute offense.
5. Tennessee Titans (from the Los Angeles Rams) — Ohio State S Malik Hooker
A cornerback isn’t penciled in here because the team signed Logan Ryan and no longer is in need of immediate help. Instead, the Titans go for a potentially game-changing safety in Hooker, who carries concerns about his health (following hip and hernia surgeries) and inexperience (only four years of football, one year starting in college). If the Titans can be patient with him, he could be special — a perennial All Pro — in time. The Titans might be sniffing the playoffs, but they’re not forgetting about the big picture. Let Dick LeBeau impart his wisdom in Hooker and watch a star be born.
6. New York Jets — Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore
Tom Brady has more weapons, Tyrod Taylor is staying in Buffalo and the Miami Dolphins are improving offensively under Adam Gase. The Jets have to find ways to stop the pass, and with the Darrelle Revis 2.0 era over, Lattimore makes a ton of sense. He separated himself from the rest of the CB class with a strong scouting combine performance on top of some excellent tape in one standout season.
7. Los Angeles Chargers — Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
I battled with this pick for a while. Then I stepped back and realized that need might be a relative term here. For as much of an iron man as Philip Rivers is, with 11 straight seasons with 16 starts, this might be the perfect time to find his replacement. He has taken 259 sacks since 2010, most in the NFL over that time and two fewer than Tom Brady has taken since 2006. Rivers turns 36 this season, is coming off a career high in interceptions and the Chargers must think about the future now.
First-year head coach Anthony Lynn had success building an offense for Tyrod Taylor, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt shepherded Marcus Mariota into the NFL. Watson has some crossover skills to both of those QBs and would not have to be rushed into action.
The Chargers kept the Joey Bosa pick a year ago completely under wraps, so don’t worry if you’ve not heard Watson paired here yet. Want to grab L.A.’s attention and steal a bit of the crosstown Rams’ thunder, Chargers? Drafting Watson could do that, and watching him and Jared Goff develop alongside each other for their respective teams could be a fascinating situation.
8. Carolina Panthers — Stanford DE Solomon Thomas
This feels like a Dave Gettleman-like pick. We’ve heard a running back attached here, but that can come later. And the depth up front is still decent after the trade of Kony Ealy. Still, nabbing a young force player up front makes too much sense. The Panthers still don’t have a true, three-down edge rusher on the roster, and Thomas opens up some terrific possibilities as a kick-down tackle on third downs lining up next to Kawann Short.
9. Cincinnati Bengals — Alabama DL Jonathan Allen
This pick comes with concerns about Allen’s health, as he was determined to have arthritic shoulders, which could shorten his career. He then went on to put up marginal testing numbers in Indy, which had scouts going back to the tape. But Allen is a top-10 talent who can factor in at end and tackle and be a disruptive force for a team that was surprisingly soft against inside runs last season.
There’s familiarity here, too, with the Bengals, who have drafted three Alabama players since 2009. Said director of player personnel Duke Tobin in 2016, “We’ve always been impressed with the Alabama players, and it’s a smaller jump for them than it is for some of the other programs. We’ve had success with the guys there, and we find it a positive if the player that we’re thinking about taking has [ties to] Alabama.”
10. Buffalo Bills — Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara
Every year, there’s a high pick that stuns people. How’s this working for you in that regard? On the surface, it feels like a terribly rich move for luxury. LeSean McCoy is still breathing, yeah? Well, for one, the Bills are said to love Kamara, more so than Dalvin Cook and other name backs in this class. Two, it appears they’re going all in on the Titans-ish formula of building an offense around the run game. Retro, baby.
Kamara will go higher than many expect. A few teams out there really love him. And with McCoy turning 30 prior to the start of the 2018 season — and about to hit the 2,500-touch mark where many backs start to fall off — this pick would not stun us.
11. New Orleans Saints — Michigan DE Taco Charlton
Sean Payton made clear his intention to upgrade the pass rush this offseason, and he lands a player whose career had been off track until 2016, when Charlton burst onto the scene with a great season for the Wolverines. We worry about his inconsistency a bit but would love to see a Charlton-Sheldon Rankins-Cameron Jordan front going after the Cam Newtons of the world.
If Butler becomes a Saint, this pick might or might not be involved. Scroll down to No. 32 to see another direction we feel the team could address early on in this draft.
12. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia Eagles) — Alabama TE O.J. Howard
With Trubisky and Watson off the board, perhaps no defensive back or running back worth taking here, and the Browns can go with an offensive threat whom they saw up close at the Senior Bowl. Hue Jackson’s staff worked with Howard and used him in a variety of ways that week. A Howard-Gary Barnidge-Seth DeValve trio would be nice for whatever quarterback they add to the mix. We’re assuming right now a Jimmy Garoppolo trade isn’t happening, but you never know.
With another pick coming 21 selections after this, the Browns could go back to defense at the top of Round 2 and feel lucky to land a quality DB, such as Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey or Washington safety Budda Baker. There will be options there awaiting them to bolster the back end as the Browns’ rebuild continues.
13. Arizona Cardinals — Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
This pick is perhaps dependent on Kizer having a better pro day showing than he did at the combine. But he fits the mold of a Bruce Arians-style quarterback (even if Arians might be on the 18th tee of his coaching career) and lands in a perfect setup with Carson Palmer in place now but eminently replaceable in time. That time could be sooner than some imagined, however, so Kizer will need to get up to speed quickly and improve his footwork. But he’s a very good talent who could thrive here if things line up.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota Vikings) — Washington WR John Ross
You say they don’t need a receiver, but they tried to trade for Cooks after signing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Jeffery has been at his best when he has a good running mate opposite him, and Smith’s modest deal (only $500,000 guaranteed) suggests that the Eagles are not counting on him being the same deep threat he was three years ago. Also, Ross isn’t merely a long-ball specialist; he could be used similarly to how the Saints employed Brandin Cooks, giving him bubble-screen chances to make big plays out of short passes. Carson Wentz would be a happy man and a better quarterback because of it.
Cornerback might be an option here, too, but the Achilles injury to Washington’s Sidney Jones — a player the Eagles were said to like — clouds the picture a bit.
15. Indianapolis Colts — Alabama LB Reuben Foster
The Colts have a hole in the middle of their defense and face unique challenges in their division with the run games of the Titans, Houston Texans and — if our Leonard Fournette pick becomes reality — the Jacksonville Jaguars. They need an enforcer such as Foster in the middle, and he would not be a reach at this point. Foster’s scouting combine incident is a concern, but not a major one. Nice irony if he was called back to Indy … on a full-time basis.
16. Baltimore Ravens — Clemson WR Mike Williams
The Ravens have holes at offensive tackle, cornerback and receiver. They have a slew of No. 2 and 3 receivers and are missing an irreplaceable dimension with the retirement of Steve Smith Sr. So instead of trying to find a Smith-like talent, which is a fool’s errand, the Ravens could look for a bigger jump-ball specialist who has some Sidney Rice-like traits.
Give Joe Flacco a bigger threat and don’t worry about Williams’ lack of speed. He can pluck the ball and be a good red-zone complement to the tight ends. This team converted barely 50 percent of its red-zone chances into touchdowns last season, and that number needs to be at 60 or higher. Justin Tucker can’t be their offensive MVP again.
17. Washington Redskins — Ohio State CB Gareon Conley
Conley followed up a very good season with an excellent combine performance, one that ousted GM Scot McCloughan missed. That’s the tricky part with mocking any player to the Redskins: We have no damned clue who is making the pick or what they might be seeking.
But Conley is a well-built, highly athletic corner who could line up opposite Josh Norman and potentially give the Redskins a nice duo. The NFL East suddenly is pretty loaded at receiver, and the Redskins still have big room to improve in the secondary. Keep an eye on Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey here, too, if they decide corner is their biggest need.
18. Tennessee Titans — Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
Davis plans to run a 40-yard dash at some point in April in a special workout for scouts, as he was unable to at Wednesday’s pro day following ankle surgery. If he runs well, most of the major questions on him will be answered, and he perhaps could crack the top 10.
If those questions remain, Davis could fall into the Titans’ laps here and give them what one Midwest scout told us midseason was “Brandon Marshall without the headaches.” Davis escaped a tough upbringing and has a blue-collar work ethic that would be a nice fit on this team. Oh, and the guy can run block, too.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Michigan DB Jabrill Peppers
GM Jason Licht was part of an Arizona Cardinals front office that took Tyrann Mathieu and was with the New England Patriots scouting staff that drafted heady playmakers Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty atop their 2009 and 2010 drafts, respectively.
This pick is all about Peppers’ instincts and athletic traits, and the addition of J.J. Wilcox would give the Bucs a very good 1-2 punch at the position. Let Wilcox play in the box and keep Peppers free to roam the middle, where he can patrol against the strong passers of the NFC South and play over the top of tight ends such as Greg Olsen.
20. Denver Broncos — Miami (Fla.) TE David Njoku
The Broncos have made second-tier moves to land tight ends in recent years, trading for Vernon Davis and A.J. Derby and drafting injury-prone Jeff Heuerman, but none have panned out yet. Njoku would be the best they’ve had in years and give whoever wins the QB job a real threat who can press the seam. Some projections have Njoku going even higher than this following a showcase performance at the combine, and there are 2-3 teams picking before this who really like him. But this is just how the chips fell in this mock, and it would make a lot of sense.
21. Detroit Lions — Temple LB Haason Reddick
They addressed some needs in free agency but have a gaping hole (or holes?) at linebacker. What makes Reddick attractive is that he likely could play any of the LB spots and can give them a little pass-rush juice, too, which is what he did best at Temple. Finding any additional source of that would help, as Ziggy Ansah can’t do it by himself and the Lions can’t bank on Kerry Hyder logging eight sacks again next season. In this scenario, the Lions should consider themselves lucky. There are 2-3 teams higher than this that could call Reddick’s name earlier.
22. Miami Dolphins — Tennessee pass rusher Derek Barnett
Cam Wake might seem ageless, but the Dolphins need to add more help up front. Barnett was highly productive for the Vols and logged a ton of snaps, but he can be worked into the rotation with Wake, Andre Branch and newly acquired William Hayes. That’s a nice top four that should be adept both attacking Tom Brady and also facing run-heavy teams such as the Buffalo Bills. Barnett is a high-effort rusher with strong hands who can lay the wood, but he needs to get better against the run. The Dolphins can allow him to develop before asking him to play 800 snaps right away. A safety also could be in play here.
23. New York Giants — Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk
Another first-round offensive lineman? They need it. The interior feels set with center Weston Richburg and left guard Justin Pugh likely starting and free agent D.J. Fluker a strong candidate at the other guard spot. But tackle remains questionable, and the Giants are aiming to create competition at both spots. Ereck Flowers isn’t locked in at left tackle — Giants coach Ben McAdoo at the combine: “where [Flowers] ends up is where he ends up” — and Bobby Hart isn’t starter-grade.
Ramczyk is coming off hip surgery that could sideline him until training camp but can play either tackle spot and is nearly as adept, it appears, run blocking or pass blocking. Giants OL coach had Joe Staley in San Francisco, and Ramczyk has a lot of Staley in his game. Last year was all about the Giants upgrading the defense. Now it’s time to continue helping Eli Manning, as he comes down the backstretch of his career.
24. Oakland Raiders — Florida LB Jarrad Davis
Now this is a pick Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr. (and John Pagano) can agree on, we think. Like the Karl Joseph pick at safety a year ago, the Raiders are willing to forgo ideal positional size in lieu of elite instincts and football smarts. Davis also can lay the wood, making him a strong fit in a defense that has talent but never came together last season. Del Rio singled out linebacker as a position of high need in his season wrap-up, and Davis could be a Day 1 starter either as a “Mike” or “Will” in this system.
25. Houston Texans — Utah OT Garett Bolles
There’s a feeling he could go higher than this, despite the fact he turns 25 a month after the draft and has only one year of D-I experience. But Bolles put on a show at the combine with his light, athletic feet, and his tape displays a true mean streak. He has turned his life around following a rough childhood and doesn’t appear to be ready to blow his opportunity.
Derek Newton is coming off bilateral patellar tendon tears, and replacement right tackle Chris Clark was brutal in his place. The Texans are not in deep financially on either, and they could use an upgrade. OL coach Mike Devlin helped develop D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and Bolles might actually be a more gifted athlete, although he’s not as naturally strong or as refined a player entering the league.
26. Seattle Seahawks — Connecticut DB Obi Melifonwu
As we reported previously, the Seahawks have done a ton of work on Melifonwu, this year’s combine star whose stock has been boiling since the Senior Bowl. And for good reason: He’s exactly the athlete they seem to fall in love with. At 6-4 and almost 220 pounds, Melifonwu has the dimensions of a big safety who could be great insurance for Kam Chancellor, who turns 29 in a few weeks, and Earl Thomas, who is coming off major surgery.
But the Seahawks also could experiment with Melifonwu as a press corner — something he looked good at doing in Mobile — in the Brandon Browner mold. And pair him with Richard Sherman to give them an imposing duo outside. Just check out the look on Pete Carroll’s face when Melifonwu ran as well as he did in Indy. Priceless:
— Rob Staton (@robstaton) March 6, 2017
27. Kansas City Chiefs — Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes
Chiefs fans might not have gotten their wish for a veteran replacement for Alex Smith, as Andy Reid and John Dorsey made it abundantly clear that Smith was their guy for now. But pushing Smith with a stronger-armed, more naturally gifted rookie? That might be exactly what the team needs. The temptation will be there to add a more immediate contributor for a team that came up short in the playoffs and returns most of its firepower.
But finding Smith’s successor is a far more important long-term goal, and putting Mahomes with Reid might be a perfect marriage. A scout told us that Mahomes might make his first NFL head coach pull his hair out, and with Reid that’s not a concern. (We kid.) But Reid has the coaching chops to get the best out of this exciting talent, and having four compensatory picks later on allows the Chiefs to take this risk.
28. Dallas Cowboys — UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley
The injury concern with McKinley — he’s rehabbing from labrum surgery that could keep him out until training camp — is real, and that could tilt the Cowboys toward someone such as Missouri’s Charles Harris in their pursuit of a pass rusher. But McKinley should endear himself to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with his scorching engine and super athleticism, which could translate to stardom down the road. McKinley’s hunger and strong work ethic make him a lower-risk player, despite the health worry.
29. Green Bay Packers — Western Kentucky OL Forrest Lamp
The interior of the line has been gutted via free agency, and at least one of those starting positions is likely to be filled with a player not currently on the roster (assuming Jason Spriggs stays at tackle, where he’s best). Enter Lamp, a college tackle whose dimensions make him a more ideal fit inside. This would be a steal at this point if he’s still around.
Lamp might be from the west coast of Florida by way of Bowling Green, Kentucky, but he would fit right in with Green Bay and this team with his no-nonsense, blue-collar approach.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers — Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Whoa, daddy. Life comes at you fast. Le’Veon Bell might be only 25 years old and is perhaps the best two-way back in the league. But with injury concerns, heavy mileage (1,618 touches the past five seasons, dating back to his final year at Michigan State) and multiple suspensions on his record entering a contract season, he has given the Steelers reason to add to the position.
Cook might be a top-20 talent in this class but falls to this point because of some poor testing numbers at the combine and some off-field worries of his own. But can you imagine what a Bell-Cook duo could do while taking the pressure off Ben Roethlisberger? That’s one way to keep pace with the Patriots.
31. Atlanta Falcons — Missouri DE Charles Harris
We originally projected Michigan State DT Malik McDowell here, but following the signing of free agent Dontari Poe, defensive tackle is no longer a pressing need. The Falcons could look to add depth at running back (with Donta Freeman’s contract a worry), offensive guard and cornerback later on. But the pressing need now becomes finding a pass-rush complement to Vic Beasley.
Harris had a mediocre combine and is coming off a good but inconsistent season in which he butted heads with his coaches over the role he was asked to play. But he offers a ton of upside, still relatively new to the game, and is able to naturally shoot off the line and pose problems for slower tackles from either side and as a stand-up rusher. The Mizzou-to-ATL pipeline continues.
32. New Orleans Saints (from New England Patriots) — Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
We’re not sure head coach Sean Payton can help himself here after addressing defense with the Saints’ first first-rounder. Trading Brandin Cooks means the Saints need another yards-after-the-catch threat, and McCaffrey is a Reggie Bush clone who can fill that void in a variety of ways. He’s smart enough to line up in several spots and would be the perfect addition for Drew Brees as he enters the twilight of his career.
Mark Ingram is best working in more of a traditional first- and second-down role, and the Saints were anemic in the return game much of last season. McCaffrey would assist in both areas and would be a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate in this setting. This is almost too perfect a fit and could ease Saints fans’ minds about the Cooks deal, which left a bad taste in their mouths.
Is Joe Mixon an option here too? We’re not saying no.
TEAMS WITHOUT A PICK IN ROUND 1
37. Los Angeles Rams — Ohio State C Pat Elflein
A perfect pairing with Jared Goff, Elflein is a smart, highly committed leader with elite leadership traits and the strength to help anchor a run game that has to get Todd Gurley loose. This would be a high-floor, low-risk pick for new head coach Sean McVay, who runs a demanding, cerebral system. Center is a gaping hole right now after the team cut Tim Barnes, and this young roster can use more tone setters.
48. Minnesota Vikings — Indiana OG-C Dan Feeney
They’ve addressed both tackle positions but now need to focus on the interior. They’re staring at starting Joe Berger at center and Jeremiah Sirles at right guard, so Feeney could come in and push either one for a starting spot. He’s a perfect fit with demanding OL coach Tony Sparano.
72. New England Patriots — Kansas State DE Jordan Willis
Logic and history say they’ll keep wheeling and dealing and won’t end up without a first- or second-round pick, especially in such a loaded draft. Willis isn’t an edge bender, but his combine athletic numbers suggest he could develop in that area. He’s a high-floor, high-character player at a position of need for the Patriots.
– – – – – – –