This is the first of four first-round NFL Draft projections from The Star, which also will have a post-free-agency mock draft on April 9, a predraft mock on April 23 and a day-of mock draft on April 27.
A quick disclaimer: Each mock draft is based on individual film work, research and recent transactions. This specific one, because it is being done during free agency, is simply an exercise to begin the process of identifying each team’s needs and the value of individual prospects.
1. Cleveland Browns
OLB Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
Garrett disappears on tape sometimes, but come on — he’s a physical freak who checks all the boxes.
2. San Francisco 49ers
DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford
The switch to a 4-3 defense benefits the 49ers, who already have a pair of 3-4 ends (Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner) and now need a stud edge rusher to complete a promising defensive front. Enter Thomas, an explosive and productive edge rusher from right down the road.
3. Chicago Bears
DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama
Somebody like LSU safety Jamal Adams would have been a nice fit, but the signing of Quintin Demps to big money means the Bears can focus on getting some help up front. Allen, a disruptive interior pass rusher, fits the bill.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
RB Leonard Fournette, Louisiana State
The Jaguars addressed safety and the defensive line, so this allows them to take Fournette, a strong, fast back who could boost the running game and take some of the pressure off star-crossed quarterback Blake Bortles.
5. Tennessee Titans
S Jamal Adams, Louisiana State
Adams didn’t post eye-popping testing numbers, but his film is superb as a do-it-all safety, and his intangibles are apparently off-the-charts. He’s drawn comparisons to Chiefs star Eric Berry.
6. New York Jets
QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The Jets need to add a premium young talent at quarterback, and Watson aced the combine and his pro day. The guy is cool under pressure, and that demeanor could entice the Jets, who play in the intense New York market.
7. Los Angeles Chargers
CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
The Chargers released Brandon Flowers, so they could use another premium talent at corner. Lattimore tests out very well and has good tape, and while he has hamstring issues, he’s the best combination of need and talent here.
8. Carolina Panthers
WR John Ross, Washington
The Panthers prefer to invest in their front seven and offensive line in the first round, but after the loss of Ted Ginn Jr. to the New Orleans Saints, they need a consistent deep-ball threat to make the offense work. Ross, who ran a blistering 4.22 40-yard dash, also runs great routes and could be a star when teamed with strong-armed Cam Newton.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Here’s a really nice marriage of talent and need since the Bengals could use as edge rusher to compliment Carlos Dunlap. Barnett, a productive pass rusher with strong play strength, has the physicality to play in the rough-and-tumble AFC North.
10. Buffalo Bills
S Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Hooker didn’t work out at the combine due to injury, and he only started for one year. But he flashed terrific instincts and playmaking skills, fills a need for the Bills and is probably the best player remaining on the board.
11. New Orleans Saints
DE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
Cornerback and quarterback could also be an option here, but the Saints’ edge rush was terrible last season, and if you can’t rush the passer, you can’t win in this league. McKinley is productive and talented and would be a nice fit.
12. Cleveland Browns
QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
The Browns need a quarterback, period. There was lots of smoke about Cleveland liking Trubisky months ago, and it makes sense. Trubisky has a strong arm and plus athleticism, and has a chance to make it under quarterback guru Hue Jackson.
13. Arizona Cardinals
WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan
The Cardinals could use some interior defensive line help, but there isn’t terrific value left there at No. 13. That’s why Arizona goes with Davis, a big-bodied receiver whose combination of size (6-3, 209), competitiveness and production could make him the heir apparent to Larry Fitzgerald.
14. Philadelphia Eagles
CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
Conley is a good athlete with NFL-caliber size (6-0, 195) and length for the position. The Eagles need a premium talent at corner, where they struggled last year, and he has a chance to develop into a nice press-man corner in Jim Schwartz’s defense.
15. Indianapolis Colts
DE Taco Charlton, Michigan
It will be interesting to see if new Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard believes in his former boss John Dorsey’s philosophy of taking premium positions in the first round. If so, a lengthy, strong pass rusher like Charlton could be the pick. He fits as a 3-4 defensive end who can aid Ballard’s ongoing effort to boost one of the league’s worst front sevens.
16. Baltimore Ravens
DE/OLB Charles Harris, Missouri
The best player on the board is Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, and the Ravens typically take the best player available. But Harris has the combination of size (6-3, 252), strength, athleticism and pass-rush ability you look for in an edge rusher in the AFC North, and he could be a natural fit in the Ravens’ 3-4 defense.
ILB/DE Haason Reddick, Temple
Reddcik killed it at the combine, posting a 4.52 40-yard dash at 6 feet 1, 237 pounds, and his versatility and production as a hybrid edge rusher and inside linebacker makes him worthy of a pick this high.
18. Tennessee Titans
TE O.J. Howard, Alabama
The Titans already have a Pro Bowl tight end in Delanie Walker, but they use a ton of two-tight-end sets and Howard is one of the most complete tight ends to enter the league in years. The Titans have a need at receiver, but Howard fits the Titans’ downhill, physical offense perfectly, and there just aren’t many tight ends who can catch and block effectively.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Teams are digging into his off-field and injury history, but Cook has terrific burst and vision and is a legit home-run threat. He can add some juice to a running game that ranked 24th in the NFL, and help complete an offense that already has young studs at quarterback (Jameis Winston) and receiver (Mike Evans).
20. Denver Broncos
LT Garett Bolles, Utah
The Broncos’ offensive-tackle situation was a mess last season, and while they’ve added Menelik Watson to the mix, they might want to shore up the left side. Enter Bolles, a nasty player who tested off the charts at the combine and has massive potential in a zone scheme.
21. Detroit Lions
ILB Reuben Foster, Alabama
This is the sweet spot for where stud inside linebackers typically go in the draft, given that it’s not a premium position. The Lions’ front seven was terrible last season, so that could very will be the focus. Detroit has a significant need here and Foster, a three-down thumper, fills it.
22. Miami Dolphins
G Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
A left tackle in college, Lamp might not have the length to hold up on the edge. But he’s a good athlete with good strength who could easily shift inside to left guard (where the Dolphins have a need) and be a solid, productive player.
23. New York Giants
OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
The Giants feature a pair of strong run-blocking tackles (Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart) who have struggled in pass protection. Adding a confident technician like Ramczyk adds insurance. Also keep an eye on defensive tackle, depending on what happens with free agent Johnathan Hankins.
24. Oakland Raiders
DT Malik McDowell, Michigan State
The Raiders need help at linebacker, but with Foster off the board, that might be a reach. Fortunately for the Raiders, defensive tackle is just as big of a need, and while they could spring for Florida’s Caleb Brantley, McDowell is more gifted. He has some character issues, but he’s a long, gifted talent, not unlike the Chiefs’ first pick last year, Chris Jones.
25. Houston Texans
QB DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
The Texans have a strong need here since Brandon Weeden and Tom Savage are the only quarterbacks on the roster. The strong-armed Kizer is young and raw but boasts prototype size (6-4, 233) and mobility.
26. Seattle Seahawks
OT Cam Robinson, Alabama
Tom Cable is one of the league’s best offensive line coaches, but he hasn’t had a ton to work with in recent years. The Seahawks signed Luke Joeckel, the former No. 2 overall pick, but it was only for a one-year deal. He also has experience at guard, so don’t rule out the possibility of selecting the immensely-talented Robinson, who checks the athletic boxes but needs to brush up his technique.
27. Kansas City Chiefs
QB Patrick Mahomes II, Texas Tech
The pressure is on Alex Smith to deliver, and while he is indeed their quarterback for 2017, the cap-tight Chiefs could save $17 million by releasing him next year. They could also create some cap room by extending him, but the point is, his future will likely be determined by how he fares this season.
That said, someone like Mahomes — who ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay recently called a cross between Brett Favre and Johnny Manziel — could be tempting to the Chiefs, who have done plenty of background work on him. He’s a gunslinger with a cannon for an arm and plus intangibles, but he’s very raw and will likely need at least a year to get accustomed to the lengthy verbiage in coach Andy Reid’s playbook. Mahomes has never had to call lengthy plays with regularity, and that’s something all quarterbacks have to do in Kansas City. The good news is that Reid is very good at scheming up concepts for his quarterbacks, so they often make predetermined reads, and with Mahomes’ arm and willingness to chuck it deep, he could potentially open up the playbook in a way Chiefs fans haven’t seen consistently.
By the way, one other bonus to selecting a quarterback early — he’ll be very cheap for the next five years. For a team that has been tight against the cap for the last several years, that would be a boon.
Of course, other teams watch tape, too, and there’s a chance none of the top four quarterbacks — Mahomes, Kizer, Trubisky and Watson — will be here, especially if Arizona takes a quarterback at No. 13. And if the top four quarterbacks are off the board, the Chiefs might be best served trading down or taking the best player available and perhaps addressing quarterback in one of the next two rounds with the likes of Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman, Cal’s Davis Webb, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs or Miami’s Brad Kaaya.
But let’s say they keep the pick. Possible options include a defensive tackle like Florida’s Caleb Brantley or a cornerback like Washington’s Kevin King, Florida’s Quincy Wilson and Southern California’s Adoree’ Jackson (the Chiefs met with the latter two at the combine, by the way).
I also gave some serious thought here to Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, because the Chiefs could use a dynamic home-run hitting back after the release of Jamaal Charles. McCaffrey was one of the combine’s top testers at his position and offers unique versatility as a runner and receiver. Still, I just can’t pick him to the Chiefs in the first, because — fun tidbit — Reid and Dorsey have never selected a running back in the first round. Not once, even dating back to the Green Bay and Philadelphia days. So if they did take him this high, they’d be bucking their trend.
28. Dallas Cowboys
DE Jordan Willis, Kansas State
Willis plays his tail off, has an array of pass-rush moves and has tested very well during the predraft process. He fills a need for the Cowboys, but he might go even higher than this.
29. Green Bay Packers
OLB T.J. Watt, Wisconsin
This former Badger gets to stay home. An all-day sucker who reminds Mike Mayock of Clay Matthews, he’s a seamless fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Packers.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
WR Mike Williams, Clemson
Williams isn’t a speed burner, but his 40-yard dash time of 4.55 at his recent pro day was good enough to solidify his first-round status. He’s a classic possession receiver who offers insurance for oft-troubled receiver Martavis Bryant.
31. Atlanta Falcons
LB/S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Peppers is superb athlete without a position. He sees himself as a safety but spent all of 2016 as a linebacker and doesn’t have much ball production. No matter; the guy is a pure football player, and at the very least, he’ll give some juice to the Falcons’ return units and create some interesting defensive possibilities for coach Dan Quinn.
32. New Orleans Saints
CB Kevin King, Washington
The Saints traded star receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots for this pick, and after spending the first-round pick on McKinley, it’s time to address cornerback, another weak position. King tested well at the combine and his size (6-3, 200) should be attractive to the Saints.