This is the second in The Star’s series of NFL first-round draft projections. You can find the first here.
A quick disclaimer: Keep in mind that there are still 2 1/2 months until the draft, so a ton can (and will) change after the NFL scouting combine, which takes place this week, and free agency, which starts March 10.
Regardless, this is a very good exercise to gain an understanding of each team’s positional needs as the offseason builds toward the draft. Each mock draft will change based on additional research, film work and transactions.
Finally, one last disclaimer: any pre-Combine mock draft is based largely on fit and film work; players’ values will undoubtedly change once NFL decision makers get players’ measurables and begin the interview process.
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1 Tampa Bay
QB Marcus Mariota, 6-4, 219, Oregon
The Buccaneers are paving the way for a new quarterback. They recently released Josh McCown, who was signed to be their starter last offseason, and at least one beat writer believes the coaching staff sees third-year pro Mike Glennon as a backup. That means Mariota or Florida State’s Jameis Winston could easily go No. 1. Neither player is a clean prospect. There’s concern, and rightfully so, about whether Mariota will be able to throw into NFL passing windows (they were huge at Oregon) and about his laid-back personality. Winston, meanwhile, ran a pro-style offense at Florida State and has arm strength and moxie. But his senior tape was peppered with questionable throws, and he saw his touchdown total drop from 40 in 2013 to 25 and his interception total rise from 10 in 2013 to 18. There’s also his well-documented off-field issues. The guess here — at least for now — is that the Bucs will settle on Mariota, whose athleticism and experience in a fast-paced offense could play well with new coach Dirk Koetter. But Winston could easily slide ahead of Mariota if he interviews well at the combine and his background checks go favorably. Stay tuned.
DE Dante Fowler, Jr., 6-3, 260, Florida
The Titans have plenty of holes on their roster, but the Titans have players they like at the positions several top prospects play. Southern California’s Leonard Williams is a 3-4 defensive end who would be blocked by Ropati Pitoitua and Jerrell Casey in the Titans’ scheme, and coach Ken Whisenhunt likes sixth-round quarterback Zach Mettenberger, which could keep Winston out of the mix. The Titans do, however, need a big-time edge rusher, and they’ll have their pick among Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., and Missouri’s Shane Ray. Fowler gets the edge now after additional film review, which reveals an athletic, disruptive pass rusher with good get-off.
OLB Randy Gregory, 6-6, 240, Nebraska
After taking quarterback Blake Bortles No. 3 overall in 2014, general manager Dave Caldwell could be tempted to give him another weapon. And two of the draft’s best prospects — Alabama’s Amari Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White — are receivers. But Caldwell has mentioned that his three most important positions are quarterback, left tackle and pass rusher, and the latter remains a massive need. Fortunately for the Jaguars, there are plenty of options here. Williams could represent a long-term upgrade at “big” defensive end over Red Bryant and Tyson Alualu, but Ray and Gregory offer a bigger upgrade as a “Leo” pass rusher in the Jaguars’ scheme over their current options. Ray will be tempting because of his elite first step, but Gregory has a bigger frame, and thus offers more long-term potential.
WR Amari Cooper, 6-1, 210, Alabama
General manager Reggie McKenzie could be tempted to take Southern Cal’s Williams, who would love to stay in California and projects as a good interior lineman in the NFL. But don’t underestimate new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s influence; Several reporters have said Musgrave, who learned in Philly under spread guru Chip Kelly, will bring an up-tempo attack to Oakland. Cooper is a perfect fit. He’s the most polished route runner in the draft, and his ability to catch the deep ball will stretch defenses and give promising young quarterback David Carr room to operate. West Virginia’s White is in Cooper’s class as a prospect, but he’s not quite as polished. This pick can change if any of the top free-agent receivers opt to take the Raiders’ money.
DE Leonard Williams, 6-5, 300, Southern California
If the draft shakes out this way for Washington, new defensive coordinator Joe Barry should be thrilled. He inherits an interior defensive line that is old and talent deficient, and Williams can immediately step in and contribute. He does not possess elite get-off but he is strong, aware and capable of developing into a plus player vs. the run and pass. Williams even flashed a sometimes-unblockable swim move that’s fun to watch. If Washington addresses the interior defensive line in free agency, also keep an eye on Mizzou’s Ray; Brian Orakpo is a pending free agent who may command more on the open market than Washington is willing to pay an injury-prone star, and Ray could be a promising replacement.
6 New York Jets
OLB Shane Ray, 6-3, 245, Missouri
New offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has a history of getting the most out of middling quarterbacks, so while the Jets have been noncommittal about mercurial young quarterback Geno Smith, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re locked into taking one of the top two quarterbacks if one falls. But for now, let’s assume new Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan decides to avoid the circus that could follow if they take Florida State’s Winston; few teams are covered more critically by the media than the Jets. New coach Todd Bowles is a solid defensive mind, so Maccagnan could choose to play to his strengths and draft Ray, who could nudge an already-strong pass rush (sixth in the league in sacks) into elite territory if he develops. The Jets reportedly will release Percy Harvin, so West Virginia’s White could also be a good option; he and Eric Decker could make a very nice combo down the road for whoever the quarterback will be. The Jets could also use some talent at offensive tackle, where Stanford’s Andrus Peat could eventually inherit D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s job on the left side.
T Andrus Peat, 6-7, 316, Stanford
New Bears coach John Fox wants to instill toughness up front and lean on the running game, particularly after Jay Cutler’s struggles in 2014. That said, the offensive line could use an infusion of talent. Right guard Kyle Long is trending up, and though left guard Matt Slauson only played five games because of a torn pectoral muscle, he was good in 2013. That leaves both tackle positions, which have been substandard the last two years. Fortunately for the Bears, there are some intriguing options. Iowa’s Brandon Scherff is a nasty run blocker who fits what Fox wants to do; the question is whether he has the feet to stay at tackle. Peat, on the other hand, offers prototypical size. He also has better feet and athleticism, projects better in pass protection, and shows some nastiness — he puts people on the ground. Peat can start at left tackle if the Bears choose to move on from Jermon Bushrod, or right tackle if they want to keep him.
WR Kevin White, 6-3, 210, West Virginia
The Falcons have to upgrade their woeful pass rush, which ranked second to last in sacks. The problem is, in this scenario, the top three pass rushers are all off the board, and this is probably a little early to take someone from the next tier. So this seems like a good spot to trade down, particularly if a team wants to jump the QB-needy Rams for Winston. This would allow the Falcons to acquire more picks and still take the pass rusher they need later. In this instance, however, let’s assume they are stuck with the pick and will be forced to take the best player available. That’s White, who is big, strong and consistently makes difficult, contested catches. He also gives great effort as a blocker and plays with passion. Roddy White turns 34 this year, so drafting Kevin White could keep the Falcons’ offense humming for years to come with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
9 New York Giants
T/G Brandon Scherff, 6-5, 320, Iowa
I’ve still got the Giants taking Scherff, even though they need help everywhere on a defense that has seemingly become old overnight. But drafting Scherff, a mauler who I believe best profiles as a guard, will allow them to shift 2014 second-round pick Weston Richburg back to center and boost the league’s 28th-ranked rushing offense. Scherff can even serve as insurance for left tackle Will Beatty, who turns 30 this year and bounced back after an injury-ravaged 2013 campaign. Some will campaign for Alabama safety Landon Collins to go here, but box safeties simply aren’t that valuable anymore. Games are still won up front, and Scherff is simply the best player on the board.
10 St. Louis Rams
QB Jameis Winston, 6-4, 230, Florida State
It’s no secret the Rams need a quarterback: Sam Bradford can’t stay healthy and the ceiling for his backups — Shaun Hill and Austin Davis — is limited. So depending on how you feel about Winston, his fall to this spot could either be a blessing or a curse. If the current regime whiffs on Winston, that’s it for them. But the risk might be worth the reward. Finding a quarterback is tough, and Winston does have the ability to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with his arm. Plus, the Rams’ offense — which coach Jeff Fisher wants to build around the power run — will complement Winston’s skill set. If the Rams believe in Bradford and/or go the veteran quarterback route, they could take an offensive lineman. But in this scenario, with Peat and Scherff off the board, Winston represents the best value for the pick.
WR DeVante Parker, 6-3, 209, Louisville
The Vikings have needs on the offensive line (particularly guard), receiver and inside linebacker, but the best player on the board at any of those positions is Parker, a human pogo stick whose leaping and natural ability to catch contested, vertical passes will be welcome in Minnesota. He has flaws; he’s a long strider who does not create much separation off the line of scrimmage, but he has some juice after the catch, and again, he can stretch the field. Plus, he should take to the Vikings quickly; he and emerging young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater lit up defenses together at Louisville from 2011-13. Parker’s presence, provided he develops into a true No. 1, will eventually bump the Vikings’ other receivers down a role, which will only help Bridgewater’s development. Speaking of which, don’t rule out a lineman if one of the top-tier guys (Peat or Scherff) fall.
DT Eddie Goldman, 6-4. 320, Florida State
It looks like Jordan Cameron, a pending free agent, won’t be with Cleveland in 2015, so an offense already bereft of weapons because of Josh Gordon’s year-long suspension looks very barren. Unfortunately for the Browns, the three receivers in the draft’s top tier — Cooper, White and Parker — are all of the board. And while the Browns could use an upgrade at right tackle, the top-tier linemen are gone, too. So the two players who represent the best value here at positions of need are Florida State’s Eddie Goldman, a defensive tackle I’ve tentatively moved past Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton in my rankings, and Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams. It’s unlikely either player will last until the 19th pick, so the Browns have a choice to make. Few defensive tackles in this draft will give them what Goldman would; he’s a disruptive three-technique with good get-off and some pass-rush ability. The Browns run a 3-4 defense but there’s room for that in their scheme; they’ll need it because defensive tackle Phil Taylor might be released to create cap space.
13 New Orleans
OLB Vic Beasley, Jr., 6-2, 235, Clemson
The Saints need more talent at cornerback, as they might be ready to move on from Patrick Robinson and Corey White. They recently re-signed veteran linebacker Parys Haralson, but they could use a player who can one day replace him on the edge. They could also use a center, as Jonathan Goodwin is set to become a free agent, and keep an eye on guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, who are both 30 or older and command massive salaries — the Saints could create cap room by moving on from either. The point is they have a lot of needs, but for now I’m going to stick with Beasley, a bullet off the edge with pass-rush savvy. He lacks prototypical size to play on the line of scrimmage every down, but given his body, he might be athletic enough to play head up against tight ends and play off the line like Haralson. Beasley, however, would also bring the added dimension of bumping down to defensive end in passing situations.
Danny Shelton, 6-2, 343, Washington
The Dolphins need help in the interior on both sides of the ball, especially if they don’t bring back Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. Goldman is off the board, but essentially he and Shelton have the same grade, so this is a natural pick and probably a better fit for Miami. Shelton is a massive man who, in my opinion, is probably best suited as a one-technique tackle, but he is tough to move when he is allowed to attack upfield. He had tremendous sack production with nine in 2014 but probably lacks the traits to make the same kind of impact as a pass rusher in the NFL. That won’t matter to the Dolphins, who already have two very good pass rushers in Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and desperately need some beef in the middle of their defense.
15 San Francisco
CB Trae Waynes, 6-1, 182, Michigan State
The 49ers roster building has been impressive. They have young, highly-drafted backups at every position where a veteran could bolt this spring via free agency, except at cornerback and receiver. Both starting cornerbacks, Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver, are set to become free agents, and the 49ers could really use another high-level talent there. Meanwhile, Michael Crabtree is a free agent and Anquan Boldin turns 35 this year. The 49ers have 2014 draft picks Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington waiting in the wings, but still could still use a big, physical receiver. But with the top-tier guys off the board at that position, Waynes is physical, chippy, and a willing tackler with good instincts. That means he will fit right in on the 49ers’ defense.
MLB Eric Kendricks, 6-0, 230, UCLA
Right tackle Derek Newton is coming off a strong season, but he’s slated to be a free agent. Meanwhile, the Texans might need a free safety and cornerback, where Kendrick Lewis and Kareem Jackson are also ticketed for free agency. Brian Cushing played part of 2014 with a broken wrist but the 28-year-old inside linebacker didn’t look like the same player he was. Choosing Kendricks would not only provide the Texans with insurance for Cushing, it would also beef up a front seven that could become dominant if Jadeveon Clowney heals up from his microfracture injury and lives up to his immense potential. If Kendricks’ stock falls after the combine (given his size, he needs to test well to go this high), the Texans could take someone like Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams (who I’m high on) or a cornerback like Michigan State’s Waynes or Florida State’s P.J. Williams.
17 San Diego
RB Melvin Gordon III, 6-1, 213, Wisconsin
As Mel Kiper noted, there hasn’t been a running back taken in the first round since 2012. But Gordon III isn’t an ordinary back. And if the Chargers really feel like gambling, they can take Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who might be a better but is coming off an ACL tear. Either player represents an upgrade, someone who gives the Chargers the kind of balance that might have been worth a few more wins in 2014. Also keep an eye on cornerback, safety and pass rusher; all are positions of need. Offensive tackle will also be a priority if they can’t re-sign massive free agent King Dunlap.
TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 250, Minnesota
Go ahead and let your anger out. Scream. I’ll wait.
Done yet? Good. It’s no secret the Chiefs need receivers, so I’m not going to bore you with the reasons why. But Cooper, White and Parker are all off the board here, and it’s not in John Dorsey’s and Andy Reid’s nature to reach for a second-tier guy at that spot in the draft. So what’s the best way to provide Alex Smith with another weapon? Give him another top-flight, young tight end.
Yes, I know the Chiefs already have Travis Kelce. I love Kelce’s upside, too — he’s already a very good player and he still has room to grow. But Anthony Fasano isn’t getting any younger (he turns 31 this year), and as you know, Reid loves his two-tight end sets. I had a discussion with Reid where he’s waxed poetically about his days in Green Bay, when the Packers terrorized defenses with two Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends in Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson. So yes folks, there is absolutely room in the offense for Kelce and a player of Williams’ caliber.
Speaking of Williams, I already liked him based on the bits and pieces I saw of him this season, but he jumped off the tape in my recent film review. As a redshirt sophomore, he flashed an impressive combination of athleticism, aggressiveness and ball skills (he made multiple sensational catches in the games I watched). He needs to refine his route running but he is an emotional player who gets excited after big plays and is a very willing and aggressive blocker (often blocking to the whistle), though he sometimes slips off blocks because of a lack of strength. But guess what? He’s still young — he only turns 21 this year — and still has room to fill out his frame.
Finally, Smith takes a lot of heat for fans and some analysts for not taking chances downfield. Well, if you’re in that camp, why not give him another weapon at a position he’s shown he’s willing to throw to? The Chiefs can’t reasonably get out of Alex’s contract until after the 2017 season, so you need to commit to giving him the pieces he needs that give him the best chance to succeed.
For the record, I’d still keep an eye on UCLA middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who went to the Chiefs in my last mock draft and is still a first-rounder in my eyes, though small inside linebackers often fall to the second round. Also keep an eye on cornerback — I’m intrigued by Florida State’s P.J. Williams, provided he has the long arms the Chiefs like — and Miami of Ohio’s Quinten Rollins, a former basketball player who is raw but really gifted.
Lastly, I feel obligated to say I’m not crazy about the Chiefs taking the first-round receivers remaining on the board this early (Jaelen Strong, Devin Smith), though that could change as we go through the process. I need to see what kind of 40-yard dash Strong runs, and because he needs to improve his route running, I wonder about how he’d fit in Reid’s offense. I know Smith would fit — he’s an elite deep-ball threat — but he’s still raw in other facets of the game and is probably better suited to be a late-first or early-second-round pick.
WR Jaelen Strong, 6-4, 205, Arizona State
The Chiefs’ selection of Williams surprises and upsets the Browns, who were a pick away from a dynamite haul in the first round. Alas, for now, I’ll keep Strong as the pick at this spot. Josh Gordon is facing a year-long suspension, and Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin are effective but short; Strong fits the bill as a big receiver, and I do like his run-after-the-catch ability and vertical ball skills. If he runs fast at the combine this week, it will go a long way toward solidifying himself as a mid-first round pick (potentially by the Chiefs). If he runs slow, I expect his stock to take a hit, too. At that point, perhaps the Browns could reach for Ohio State’s Devin Smith, a big-play receiver in Gordon’s mold, or draft a promising cornerback like P.J. Williams to replace Buster Skrine, who is a free agent. The latter move would not be a positive sign regarding Justin Gilbert’s development — the eighth overall pick in 2014 had a rocky rookie year — but hedging their bets might be smart. At worst, they’d end up with three good corners (joining stud Joe Haden) in a pass-happy league. Not bad.
CB P.J. Williams, 6-0, 194, Florida State
The Eagles’ decision to draft pass rusher Marcus Smith II in the first round last season felt like a choice made on need, rather than value; few had Smith II as a first-round pick. If that trend continues, the Eagles will likely address their secondary. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher struggled and is about to hit free agency, while strong safety Nate Allen is also a free agent. The Eagles drafted strong safety Earl Wolff in the fifth round a few years ago and cornerback Jaylen Watkins in the fourth round a year ago, so there is some young talent in the pipeline, but given the way teams throw now, you simply can’t have too many capable defensive backs. That said, at this point of the draft I like Williams more as a prospect than Alabama safety Landon Collins. Williams is a press corner whose athleticism, quick feet and competitiveness has made a positive early impression. In fact, I might like him more than Michigan State’s Trae Waynes.
OLB Nate Orchard, 6-4, 250, Utah
The Bengals’ pass rush could use a little more juice, and in my last mock draft, I gave them Kentucky star Alvin “Bud” Dupree. Here’s the thing; after more time in the film room, I like Orchard more. He’s explosive out of his three-point stance, particularly as a wide-nine technique, and he’s crafty with his pass-rush moves. He also plays hard. My only issue with him is a lack of bulk and strength; he gets moved vs. the run. But he often does a good job of finding the football anyway. Considering the Bengals’ pass-rush woes at defensive end — starter Wallace Gilberry only had 1 1/2 sacks — Orchard’s pass-rush ability could be a breath of fresh air in Cincinnati.
CB Quinten Rollins, 5-11, 193, Miami (Ohio)
I had the Steelers taking Orchard, but with him off the board, I feel like Rollins might be a better pick than one of the other remaining pass rushers. The Steelers were subpar on the back end last season, and while Rollins is raw, he displayed impressive athleticism, physicality and ball skills (seven interceptions) in his one season of college football. He’s still developing football instincts, but there’s a lot to work with here, as he showed promise in press and off-man coverage. The Steelers could also look at somebody like LSU’s Jalen Collins (6 feet 2, 198 pounds) who checks all the physical boxes but needs to be more consistent and work on his technique. But at this point, I like Rollins more as a prospect.
DT Michael Bennett, 6-2, 288, Ohio State
I still like Bennett here for the Lions, who are about to have four of their top five defensive tackles hit the free-agent market. That makes the position a necessity, even if they back the Brinks truck up at Ndamukong Suh’s doorstep. No matter what happens, Bennett will be a nice addition. He’s quick off the snap and is strong; he needs to develop as a pass rusher but he is fairly stout in the middle. A cornerback could be an option if one of the top guys fall, but restocking the middle of the defense should be the Lions’ priority.
C/G Cameron Erving, 6-6, 311, Florida State
Erving, my favorite center prospect (so far) in the draft, offers versatility — he started the season as a left tackle and ended it at center, where he thrived — and his length, quickness off the ball and zone-blocking instincts are appealing. The Cardinals need help everywhere on the line outside of left tackle, so he’s got a chance to be an immediate contributor. I’ll also say this; this is the spot of the draft where the best centers always seem to go, and the teams rarely regret it.
T Ereck Flowers, 6-6, 323, Miami (Fla.)
I’m going to stick with Flowers here even though Penn State’s Donovan Smith might be gaining on him for No. 2 in my position rankings. Flowers is brawny, strong and athletic, but he needs to work on his technique. Smith caught my eye at the Senior Bowl because of his size and agility, but when I spoke to him, he admitted he was inconsistent in 2014, which he attributed to technique issues caused by overaggressiveness. I’d like to see more film of both players, but for now, Flowers gets the edge — and either would represent an upgrade at Cam Newton’s blindside over what the Panthers ran out there last year.
WR Devin Smith, 6-1, 198, Ohio State
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is adept at judging players’ worth; if big-play receiver Torrey Smith hits the market and gets a massive deal, he may not match it. And even if Smith does return, it would probably be a good idea to get Steve Smith Sr.’s eventual replacement in the pipeline. Ohio State’s Smith has a ways to go to become a complete receiver, but he does have big-time deep ball ability, just like Torrey Smith.
RB Todd Gurley, 6-1, 220, Georgia
The Cowboys have made Dez Bryant a bigger free-agent priority than star running back DeMarco Murray. If that comes to pass, Jerry Jones is going to have a hard time passing on a splashy, big-time (and cheap) back like Gurley, whether he’s coming off a torn ACL or not. Cornerback is also a need, and a big, long prospect like LSU’s Collins could be a fit in the Cowboys’ scheme.
T T.J. Clemmings, 6-5, 307, Pittsburgh
I still think new coach Gary Kubiak is going to want to bolster the line for Peyton Manning provided he returns. By drafting Clemmings, they can shift Louis Vasquez from right tackle back to his more natural position of right guard. Clemmings needs to be coached up — his technique is inconsistent because he hasn’t been playing the position very long — but he possesses good athleticism and length and also shows some nastiness as a run blocker, all of which will be helpful in Kubiak’s zone running scheme.
SS Landon Collins, 6-0, 222, Alabama
The Colts just cut LaRon Landry, and Sergio Brown and Mike Adams (a Pro Bowler) are slated for free agency. That makes safety a significant need, and while box safeties aren’t as valuable as they used to be, Collins shows just enough versatility to sneak into the first round here. He’s got some ball skills and is comfortable around the box, and figures to be a plug-and-play type.
30 Green Bay
ILB Benardrick McKinney, 6-5, 249, Mississippi State
I toyed around with the thought of making McKinney a Pittsburgh Steeler — he just looks like a classic supersized Steelers inside linebacker — but I remembered they still have Lawrence Timmons and drafted Ryan Shazier last year. So McKinney stays. Like I wrote last time, the Packers’ play at inside linebacker was so bad that they moved star outside linebacker Clay Matthews midseason. This can’t continue. McKinney moves fairly well for his size and is a big body with decent instincts against the run. He also flashes some ability as an edge rusher (I almost like him there, more).
G La’El Collins, 6-5, 308, LSU
Starting left guard James Carpenter is headed for free agency, but this is a position the Seahawks could stand to upgrade, anyway. I’m pretty high on South Carolina’s A.J. Cann and Duke’s Laken Tomlinson at guard — I think both would be nice second-round picks by the Chiefs — but Collins looks like a better athlete, which will help in the Seahawks’ zone-read scheme. He’s also a college tackle, which is a positive. Receiver is also an option, but the only receivers I like this high are Phillip Dorsett of Miami (Fla.) and Tyler Lockett of Kansas State. Both are speedy, quick and smallish, however, and the Seahawks already have enough guys like that.
32 New England
DE Alvin “Bud” Dupree, 6-4, 264, Kentucky
The Patriots could use some help on the interior offensive line, so someone like Cann or Tomlinson would be a nice pick. But Bill Belichick understands value better than anybody, and I just can’t imagine him letting a potential pass-rusher like Bud Dupree slip through his mitts. Dupree isn’t an eye-popping athlete off the edge, but he has experience standing up and in a three-point stance and shows flashes of being able to set the edge against the run, rush the passer and play in space. He’ll be another toy for Belichick to play with on his defense.