At this point of the NFL season, teams are starting to get an idea of where things are going to end up. There are some surprises left for us in 2016 and into 2017, but the long process of building and rebuilding a successful football club doesn’t have time for the normal calendar. Teams just shift from one part of the process to the next.
There is no team in the NFL that knows who they’ll draft at this point. Most teams would honestly tell you that even if they had the top-overall pick, they’d still go through the full process and make sure they not only got that pick right, but that they made sure they’d done everything they could to get every pick right. While most of us focus on the glamour players of the first round and maybe suggest there’s another Russell Wilson in the third, a Dak Prescott in the fourth or a Tom Brady hiding in the sixth, there’s an increasingly small chance a later-round player will make an impact.
This mock draft comes from hours of talking to team personnel; scouts who are collecting data and some of the decision-makers who’ll have the phone in front of them in the war room come spring. My goal was to get into a team’s thinking and preferences, not to necessarily get the exact pick correct. Player preferences are as key to this as team needs and draft trends, but those are the areas that I focused on. I’m not trying to play scout here, but basically I’m reverse engineering the current thinking of the draft.
It’s going to change, but this is a good baseline, and if you look back at previous drafts over the last decade, you’ll see there’s really not much movement at the top. There are shuffles and the occasional fall, but there’s seldom a real surprise. One scout told me there’s probably not more than two players outside his top 50 who will be picked in the first round and none out of his top 100. That’s not him saying he knows more than anyone, but that even at this early stage, teams have a very good idea who the players are. It takes a Laremy Tunsil — or La’el Collins-type bombshell to really move someone late in the process — and that’s almost always down.
Want one trend to talk about? It’s that there’s almost no smaller college players at the top of not only this mock, but most mocks out there. It’s dominated by the biggest schools, and most think that’s a function of college recruiting. More and more players are flocking to the football factories that can best prepare players for the NFL, if they can’t beat out the other five-star recruits for playing time. There are always going to be late bloomers and missed gems, but for ’17, no one seems to have really found one.
So here are the picks for the first round, as they stand now:
Cleveland Browns (0-13)
Likely Pick: Myles Garrett, DE Texas A&M. Actually, the likeliest scenario is the Browns will trade out of this pick. There are some teams that would be willing to move up to get their quarterback due to the astounding scarcity, or even shift up if someone really falls in love with Jabril Peppers or Garrett (and they will). Cleveland would be happy taking Garrettt and he’d immediately be their best defender, but I’d be surprised if they actually make the pick.
San Francisco 49ers (1-11)
Likely Pick: Mitch Trubisky, QB North Carolina. If Chip Kelly is still the coach, Notre Dame quarterback DeShon Kizer is a better fit for his system, but that’s looking iffy. Even the Niners’ scouts are starting to fall in love with Trubisky. If Kizer stays in school, Trubisky will become even more valuable since he would be the only consensus first-round QB, which could force some teams, including the Chicago Bears, to think about a trade with Cleveland. If the Niners don’t get their QB here, they’ll take Garrett without hesitation.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10)
Likely Pick: Jonathan Allen, DT Alabama. The first of a run of Alabama players. Allen isn’t a need for the Jags, but he’s simply too good to pass up. There’s no quarterback at this stage, though they’ll take a hard look at DeShaun Watson and Brad Kaaya in the second round. Allen should be yet another talented piece in this defense, but it has underperformed despite the draft focus.
Chicago Bears (3-9)
Likely Pick: DeShon Kizer, QB Notre Dame. Kizer sounds like he’s leaning toward coming back to Notre Dame, but he’s a scarce resource right now. While some scouts say he’d be better off in a more mobile system, the Bears are likely to change coaching staffs, and if they bring in someone who can use Kizer’s skills, that problem isn’t an issue at all. That said, Kizer might not be there or available at all. The same could be true of Trubisky, which would leave them looking hard at a trade down or taking Peppers. One scenario gaining some traction is to use this pick as the centerpiece of a deal to get Jimmy Garoppolo from New England.
New York Jets (3-8*)
Likely Pick: Leonard Fournette, RB LSU. The Jets won’t trade up for Trubisky, going with Christian Hackenburg as a bridge to someone such as Kaaya in a later round. That leaves them looking for any sort of impact, and Fournette has a chance to be special … if he’s healthy. The Jets have always been willing to take chances in the draft, and Fournette is the kind of gamble a team would be smart to take. Teams are waiting to see if Fournette has offseason surgery to correct the ankle issue that sidetracked his final season in Baton Rouge.
Tennessee Titans (from Los Angeles, 4-8)
Likely Pick: Adoree Jackson, CB USC. Jackson’s speed makes him a top kick returner as well as a solid defensive back. That combo, plus Jackson’s likely combine numbers, make him a guy who’ll leap to the top of the DB group. They’re all very close, so it will come down to preference. If the Titans go elsewhere, Jackson could fall to the late teens, possibly to Philadelphia … or to Tennessee’s second pick of the first round. This pick is a flow-of-the-draft pick, where corners are going quicker than receivers.
Carolina Panthers (4-8)
Likely Pick: Jabril Peppers, LB Michigan. Peppers is a special talent but he is something of a tweener. Most scouts see him as a fast but slightly undersized linebacker and some see him as a big safety who can play the run. That sounds like Brian Urlacher coming out of college. Peppers doesn’t have Urlacher’s size, though he is significantly faster. While teams are falling in love with Peppers, the Panthers could probably use a corner more than Peppers on fit, but they like special athletes. That said, there are a couple teams who would at least kick the tires on the idea of moving up to the first overall pick to take Peppers over Garrett and Trubisky.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-7-1)
Likely Pick: Marshon Lattimore, CB Ohio State. The Bengals actually would prefer to get Lattimore’s teammate, Malik Hooker, given their needs, but Hooker appears to be staying in school. They would have liked a shot at Peppers as well, but he probably does not fall this far. Hooker’s presence would change the board for DBs, but you can’t just go 1-2-3 because of team preferences. Sources tell me Lattimore is a strong preference here over Jackson and Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey.
New Orleans Saints (5-7)
Likely Pick: Marlon Humphrey, CB Alabama. Humphrey has some issues with his play that many are noting but he’s definitely an upgrade on what the Saints have been dealing with this year. He’s an immediate difference-maker with an ability to play in almost any scheme. While there’s going to be a lot of debate about who fits what system best, which will lead to teams having very different draft boards at corner, one scout told me Humphrey is the most complete corner he’s seen from Alabama. That is actually faint praise given some of their picks recently. There are several scouts who are way down on Humphrey, so this pick could be one that changes, as the Saints aren’t locked on anyone.
San Diego Chargers (5-7)
Likely Pick: Malik McDowell, DL Michigan State. There’s some question about what position McDowell plays in the NFL. That tweener-ness actually helps the Chargers. He can take the other side from Joey Bosa, and with a returning Manti T’eo, the defense up front should be a strength in ’17. This team is another that loves Hooker, and if Jamal Adams can convince teams he won’t be an off-field problem, he could be good value here.
Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia, 5-7)
Likely Pick: Cam Robinson, OT Alabama. Pick No. 3 out of Tuscaloosa, Robinson is likely the only first-round tackle, a real rarity. The Browns will take the one resource they probably can’t trade down and find here, but then again, the team could package this pick and load up as they did last year. There are several teams that need a tackle.
Arizona Cardinals (5-6-1)
Likely Pick: Quincy Wilson, CB Florida. Wilson’s not the Cards’ first choice, but he’d start from Day 1 on the other side of Patrick Peterson. He’s physical enough for this team’s style and has shown he can go 1-on-1 with the best of the SEC. The Cardinals have Peppers at the top of their wish list and like the speed of Jackson a lot as well.
Indianapolis Colts (5-6*)
Likely Pick: Christian McCaffrey, RB Stanford. Yes, it’s too high here, but the Colts have been laser-locked on McCaffrey since last year. Even though they have bigger needs, they seem very willing to pick McCaffrey at almost any spot. If Fournette fell here they’d have to consider him, but if he falls this far, the ankle would be the reason and the Colts have been very conservative with health concerns. The rest of the draft will be defense, but this will be a controversial pick for a GM who could be missing the playoffs for the second season.
Tennessee Titans (6-6)
Likely Pick: Mike Williams, WR Clemson. Having picked up the corner they needed earlier, they can grab a guy who just fell to them. It’s a good fit and a big plus for quarterback Marcus Mariota next season. Williams is going to need a good spring to overcome biases against underperforming Clemson receivers and guys named Mike Williams. Yes, really.
Buffalo Bills (6-6)
Likely Pick: Reuben Foster, LB Alabama. Without a corner they love on the board, Buffalo gets another Alabama prospect who can slot right into the aggressive Rex Ryan defense. They’ll look for a WR in the second round and best available the rest of the draft. Buffalo would love to move up for a Peppers or Garrett, but probably don’t have the right things in place without giving up too many picks.
Philadelphia (from Minnesota, 6-6)
Likely Pick: Sidney Jones, CB Washington. The Eagles need defensive help and they’ll look hard at all the top corners and safeties. This isn’t a likely landing spot for Adams, though he’ll be connected to the slot on talent. Jones is the most complete corner still available here, but the team isn’t locked in on any specific player or even position yet. It’s one of the most fluid slots in the whole draft.
Green Bay Packers (6-6)
Likely Pick: Dalvin Cook, RB Florida State. Cook won’t slide past the Packers. He fills an immediate need, and while the team has some needs in the defensive backfield there’s no available shutdown corner they really like. Hooker is at the top of their board, but he’s headed back to Ohio State and would likely go higher than this pick. The team will consider some linemen on both sides of the ball, but Cook is a safe pick for a big need.
Likely Pick: Tim Williams, DE Alabama. Williams doesn’t have a weakness in his game, but scouts wonder if there’s any improvement left. Williams would step right into Washington’s defense and be an upgrade, but he’s not a guy who’ll ever lead the league in sacks. The fifth guy out of Bama in this mock before we even get to No. 20 is pretty amazing, but the questions about the lack of production out of highly-touted Nick Saban products is noticed, if not explained.
Miami Dolphins (7-5)
Likely Pick: Desmond King, CB Iowa. King’s good enough to slot right into the Dolphins’ defensive backfield, but he’s not at the top of their list. The Dolphins default here given their needs and the way this draft is falling, but don’t lock this pick in. This will be a pick that gets made by the board and the teams ahead. This is a potential trade-out for Miami, either up or down.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
Likely Pick: Derek Barnett, DE Tennessee. Barnett’s fall from top-10 status will stop here on a defense that can use his pure edge stuff. He could push his way back up if the Colts change GM or coach, or if he has a better combine than expected. Interviews are going to be key for Barnett, as are private workouts. Look for a lot of stories on his pre-combine workouts leaking. This is another spot where Adams might land, with many trying to make Troy Polamalu comparisons.
Houston Texans (6-6)
Likely Pick: Raekwon McMillan, LB Ohio State. Another Buckeye? McMillan doesn’t have to step right in unless the team parts ways with Brian Cushing, but Texans need depth as well as an upgrade. They have talent, but just haven’t been able to stay healthy, so McMillan’s size and durability are a plus.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)
Likely Pick: Jalen Tabor, CB Florida. Another home state pick, Tabor can come in and hold his own from Day 1. The team also needs a safety and some depth, but Tabor’s the best available on the board here, so they’ll try to get the rest on Day 2. It’s not a great pick, but it’s a best available need pick.
Atlanta Falcons (7-5)
Likely Pick: Jamal Adams, S, LSU. There are a lot of edge guys in this draft, but just a few top-tier DBs left by this point in the draft. The Falcons think Charles Harris of Missouri will be on the board in their range in the second round, along with Taco Charlton of Michigan and DeVonte Fields of Louisville. In this scenario, they’ll end up deciding between the upside of Adams and the safer selection of Gareon Conley out of Ohio State.
Baltimore Ravens (7-5)
Likely Pick: Takkarist McKinley, DE/LB UCLA. The Ravens would love a solid running back here, so picking Nick Chubb wouldn’t stun (or maybe Dalvin Cook if he falls way more than expected.) It’s more likely that they’ll use this pick to get a rusher due to their aging players, such as Terrell Suggs. McKinley is a helium player who has come way up, so workouts will solidify his position in the first round. He could shift up even higher. One scout said if McKinley ended up the second pick behind Garrett he wouldn’t be surprised. Me, either.
Denver Broncos (8-4)
Likely Pick: Ryan Ramcyzk, OT Wisconsin. A big corn-fed Big Ten lineman seems like a good fit for whoever is QB in Denver next season. Ramcyzk isn’t considered a can’t-miss guy, but he should be a solid upgrade for the line. That said, I think this pick may well get used in a trade — either up to select a LB such as Peppers or Foster, or in a deal to bring Tony Romo in to take over at quarterback.
New York Giants (8-4)
Likely Pick: DeMarcus Walker, DE Florida State. Walker slots in for free agent Jason Pierre-Paul and plays the same kind of game. He should be right up to speed quickly and is a very solid pick for a defense that wants to keep playing at this level in ’17. There will be some push for a TE (Jake Butt or O.J. Walker), but they’ll wait on that given the depth at that position vs. missing out on an edge rusher.
Detroit Lions (8-4)
Likely Pick: Jarrad Davis, LB Florida. Davis’ singular strength is speed, so he’ll be a perfect fit at Ford Field. Expect him to chase quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Teddy Bridgewater for years to come, which is exactly what the Lions need with DeAndre Levy fading. This could be the landing spot for Adams if he can convince them in interviews.
Seattle Seahawks (8-3-1)
Likely Pick: Dan Feeney, OG Indiana. Teams don’t normally take guards this high, but Seattle’s need is clear. They’ll be looking for a later-round running back, so Feeney’s strength up the middle will help. The Seahawks would love to see McCaffrey here, but the key to this pick is the need to protect quarterback Russell Wilson above all other things.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-3)
Likely Pick: Jourdan Lewis, CB Michigan. Lewis’ size will be an issue, but Kansas City won’t hesitate if this is how the board plays. Lewis is a ballhawk who would be across from Marcus Peters, a big upgrade from what they’ve had this season. With a healthy Dee Ford and Justin Houston, the Chiefs’ D is getting really tough to play against.
New England Patriots (10-2)
Likely Pick: Carl Lawson, DE Auburn. Lawson’s upside will get him this key spot, edging out Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt. He could take the Jamie Collins slot that surprisingly opened at the trade deadline. Lawson is a raw edge rusher who should fit into the Pats’ system the way Chandler Jones did. The team will glance at the tight ends, but there’s depth enough to take one much further down in the draft.
Oakland Raiders (10-2)
Likely Pick: D’Onta Foreman, RB Texas. Foreman gets a slight edge over Chubb due to his size and power game, which mesh better with what the Raiders are doing right now. Some scouts think this is a big reach, but Oakland is not used to picking way back here and they’ll be looking to fill that key need without waiting to the second day. Cunningham will get some looks, and if Adams is still on the board the Raiders would run to the podium to take him.
Dallas Cowboys (11-1)
Likely Pick: Solomon Thomas, DE Stanford. A solid pass rusher with no off-field issues sounds like exactly what Jerry Jones is looking for. Thomas isn’t elite in any one area, but he doesn’t take plays off and won’t need weeks off, either. The team will be tempted strongly by Butt as a Witten replacement, but he’ll slip to the second day and could be a trade target if the Jones’ fall for him.
*Draft order does not include the Monday game between the Jets and Indianapolis, which will change the order slightly. Positions 21-32 are determined by playoff finish, but here are done in order of current record.