This is the sixth in The Star’s series of NFL first-round draft projections. You can find the fifth here, the fourth here, the third here, the second here and the first here. The Star will release a mock draft every week until the draft, with a final mock being released on April 30, the day of the draft.
A quick disclaimer: Each mock is based on individual film work, research and recent transactions.
1 Tampa Bay
QB Jameis Winston, 6-4, 231, Florida State
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Winston remains at the top of The Star’s QB board, even in the midst of news that a sexual assault accuser has filed a civil suit against him. From a football standpoint, he gives the Bucs a better chance to win now than Mariota because of his moxie, arm strength and familiarity with pro-style concepts.
DE Leonard Williams, 6-5, 302, Southern California
There’s some school of thought that Marcus Mariota will go here, and if the rumors regarding a possible Philip Rivers trade to the Titans are true, he just might. But unless that domino falls, I don’t see him going here. So in the absence of that deal, the best player on the board is Williams, a disruptive interior presence when the USC coaching staff allowed him to get upfield.
OLB Dante Fowler Jr., 6-3, 261, Florida
Edge rusher remains a position of concern after the Jaguars failed to address it in free agency. The best player on the board is Fowler, who gets off the ball well, plays hard and has the frame to be an effective “Leo” pass rusher in coach Gus Bradley’s scheme. Clemson’s Vic Beasley is gaining traction as a possibility here, but this is probably a little too high for a one-dimensional player.
WR Kevin White, 6-3, 215, West Virginia
The Raiders have their pick of the best receivers on the board, White and Alabama’s Amari Cooper. Cooper was slotted here a week ago, but general manager Reggie McKenzie reportedly liked Mike Evans over Sammy Watkins a year ago, and White fits Evans’ mold better than Cooper. And while White is not as polished as Cooper, he’s a competitive, emotional player with great ball skills who can give young quarterback Derek Carr the target he needs.
OLB Vic Beasley Jr., 6-3, 246, Clemson
Washington already has a good edge rusher in Ryan Kerrigan and drafted another one in the second round last year in Trent Murphy, but that was a different regime, and Murphy needs to improve his pass-rushing ability. So the pick remains Beasley, who is not a better player than Shane Ray or Randy Gregory but has tested better than Ray and has a cleaner background than Gregory.
6 New York Jets
WR Amari Cooper, 6-1, 211, Alabama
White was the pick a week ago, but now he’s off the board. Cooper, a polished route runner with excellent burst out of his cuts, is a heck of a consolation prize. He’s someone who will form a solid tandem with Eric Decker. The Jets will entertain Mariota and should pick him if they believe in his talent, even though Chan Gailey’s history of getting the most out of marginal quarterbacks should play in Geno Smith’s favor.
QB Marcus Mariota, 6-4, 222, Oregon
I could see the Bears going for an edge rusher here, especially with new coach John Fox wanting to run a 3-4 defense. But the buzz surrounding Marcus Mariota has grown in recent weeks, and the Bears’ new regime has been less than committal to incumbent quarterback Jay Cutler. Mariota’s character, athleticism and arm strength are pluses, and while he’ll need a while to adjust to the NFL game, there is some serious upside here.
OLB Shane Ray, 6-3, 249, Missouri
The Falcons are dying for a pass rusher, even though they signed Brooks Reed in free agency, and Ray can unquestionably bring it off the edge. His size and frame are long-term concerns, but he possesses an elite first step and will be an immediate contributor on passing downs for a front office that desperately needs to make the playoffs to stick around.
9 New York Giants
G/T Brandon Scherff, 6-5, 319, Iowa
Drafting Scherff, a mauler who 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.
10 St. Louis
LT Andrus Peat, 6-7, 313, Stanford
Scherff should be in the mix if he somehow slips past the Giants, but Peat is an OK consolation prize. He’s built like a house — his legs are the size of tree trunks — and he possesses good athleticism. He needs to get stronger and needs to play nasty more consistently, but he shows some nastiness as a run blocker. Peat played left tackle at Stanford, but has the frame and power to play right tackle. Offensive line is a major position of need for the Rams, who only have four offensive linemen who’ve started a regular-season game.
WR DeVante Parker, 6-3, 209, Louisville
The Vikings have jettisoned Greg Jennings and added Mike Wallace, but the NFL is a passing league, which means there’s always room for another weapon, particularly one with the deep-ball skill set of Parker. A cornerback like Trae Waynes or an offensive lineman would have to be a consideration here, particularly if Peat or Scherff fall, but Parker’s history with emerging young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — the two lit up defenses together at Louisville from 2011 to 2013 — is working in his favor.
NT/DT Danny Shelton, 6-2, 339, Washington
Shelton does not project as a disruptive NFL pass rusher, but he’s massive, plays hard and was very productive in 2014. He’s also capable of shooting gaps, which makes him an excellent fit as a one-technique player next to Geno Atkins. The Browns signed Randy Starks to bolster the interior of the offensive line, and they already have Phil Taylor, but Shelton protects them in case of injury, gives them a good, young player they can work into the rotation and will help a pass rush that needs more juice. Brown could potentially go higher, too. His upside is real.
13 New Orleans
DE Alvin “Bud” Dupree, 6-4, 269, Kentucky
Dupree isn’t an eye-popping athlete off the edge, at least on tape, 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. The NFL is a passing league now, and you can never have too many pass rushers. Dupree is the last player who is considered to be a “premium” pass rusher by most on the board.
RB Todd Gurley, 6-1, 222, Georgia
The Dolphins’ need to get a penetrating three-technique player completely evaporated with the signing of Ndamukong Suh in free agency. That frees them to take Gurley, a player who might represent the best value on the board. He was considered a top-10 pick before he tore his ACL in November, and is a special back with excellent burst and vision. He might start the season on the PUP list, but ACL injuries are no longer considered a deathknell, and Gurley has the qualities to be a Marshawn Lynch-type back.
15 San Francisco
DE Arik Armstead, 6-7, 292, Oregon
Defensive end Justin Smith is reportedly considering retirement, and although the defense-first 49ers signed Darnell Dockett, they don’t have a ton of options at one of their most important positions up front. And with many of the top players off the board at this point, it makes sense for them to consider Armstead, a physical freak who is only 20 years old and is still very raw. Armstead’s motor runs hot and cold — just look at the National Championship Game — but he has the ideal frame of a five-technique defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4 system.
ILB Eric Kendricks, 6-0, 232, UCLA
Kendricks — a tackling machine with excellent instincts — makes a ton of sense here. Brian Cushing played part of 2014 with a broken wrist. Choosing Kendricks would not only provide the Texans with insurance for Cushing, 28, it would also beef up a front seven that could become dominant if Jadeveon Clowney heals from his microfracture injury and lives up to his immense potential.
17 San Diego
OLB Randy Gregory, 6-5, 235, Nebraska
Running back Melvin Gordon is a great fit for the Chargers, but if Gregory falls this far, it’s worth the risk. The Chargers need more juice in their pass rush and Gregory has a high ceiling. He is, quite simply, the best player on the board at this point, and his combination of size, athleticism and ceiling could tempt the Chargers to overlook his past issues with marijuana.
DT Malcom Brown, 6-2, 320, Texas
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey has shown a tendency to draft a year ahead of need. Positions that figure to be needs in 2016 are cornerback and yes, defensive end, thanks to the looming free agencies of Jaye Howard and Mike DeVito. The Chiefs just paid another defensive end, Allen Bailey, a ton of money, so they might be looking to lock in a potential impact player at a fairly cheap cost. A heck of an option is Brown, a talented three-technique interior lineman who excels at shooting gaps and being disruptive. He has the potential to be a three-down lineman, which is important in today’s pass-happy NFL.
19 Cleveland (from Buffalo)
C/G Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, Florida State
Stud center Alex Mack is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year, and the Browns will not be able to franchise him. Might as well line up his long-term replacement now. In the short-term, he offers versatility. He started the 2014 season as a left tackle and ended it at center, where he thrived because of his quickness off the ball and zone-blocking instincts. If he’s too big to play center in the NFL — his length could cause problems there because it takes tall centers longer to shoot their arms into squatty tackles — he’ll also be be able to compete at right tackle.
CB Trae Waynes, 6-0, 186, Michigan State
Waynes, who blazed a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the combine, is widely regarded as the draft’s top corner, but my hunch is the draft community might like him a little more than teams do. He has good size and athleticism for the position, but doesn’t always play to his timed speed, is very handsy and needs to improve his cover technique to be a consistent cover man.
DT Eddie Goldman, 6-4, 336, Florida State
Goldman is one of the best values on the board at this point. The film shows a big, powerful man with surprising burst for his size. There are questions about his lack of statistical productivity, but his sheer size and athleticism give him scheme versatility. The Bengals’ nose guard play left a lot to be desired last year, and the signing of Michael Johnson reduces the need for an edge rusher.
SS Landon Collins, 6-0, 228, Alabama
Box safeties aren’t as valuable as they used to be, but Collins shows just enough versatility to warrant consideration for the Steelers — especially with the recent retirement of Troy Polamalu. He’s got some ball skills in zone coverage and is comfortable around the box, and while his play speed isn’t great, he interviewed well and figures to be a plug-and-play type for a secondary that struggled last season.
CB Kevin Johnson, 6-0, 188, Wake Forest
The ongoing restructuring of Philly’s secondary continues. The Eagles have already signed Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond to boost a sagging group of corners, but Thurmond missed most of last year because of an injury, and you really can’t have too many corners. Plus, Johnson is easily one of the best players on the board at this point. His quick hips and impressive athleticism will allow him to compete immediately.
OLB Nate Orchard, 6-4, 250, Utah
The Cardinals could really use more juice in their pass rush from the outside, and Orchard is the next-best guy on the board. 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. He gets moved vs. the run but often does a good job of finding the football anyway.
T Ereck Flowers, 6-6, 329, Miami, Fla.
Somebody has to protect Cam Newton’s blindside. Flowers is the best player on the board at the position. He hammered out an impressive 37 reps on the bench press at the combine, and while he needs to continue to work on his technique in pass protection, there’s some real talent to work with. He’s brawny, strong and moves people, plus he flashes nastiness.
TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 249, Minnesota
Tight end Dennis Pitta may not return after his second hip fracture, and while Ravens have recently expressed confidence in youngster Crockett Gillmore, a player like Williams — a natural hands catcher with NFL bloodlines — is exactly the kind of good, overlooked player the Ravens always seem to pluck late in the first round. A defensive tackle like Florida State’s Eddie Goldman would be good, too.
RB Melvin Gordon, 6-1, 215, Wisconsin
The Cowboys are committed to running the football, but star runner DeMarco Murray bolted for Philly during free agency. Gordon is an awesome fit, however. He needs to continue to develop his vision as a runner, but the scheme fits his talents, and the Cowboys’ excellent offensive line should open up massive holes similar to the ones he ran through at Wisconsin.
RT T.J. Clemmings, 6-5, 307, Pitt
The Broncos could still use a right tackle, and while Clemmings is very raw — his technique is still all over the place — his physical skills make him an intriguing fit. He’s very athletic and light on his feet, and if he gets good coaching, can be a very good player.
WR Jaelen Strong, 6-2, 217, Arizona State
The Colts need to be committed to getting Andrew Luck as many weapons as possible. Andre Johnson was a good start; now give him someone he can mentor in Strong, who answered questions about his long speed with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s a raw route runner who does not create much separation, but his impressive physicality and ability to track the deep ball are difficult to dispute.
30 Green Bay
ILB Benardrick McKinney, 6-4, 246, Mississippi State
The Packers just cut A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, so there’s certainly a need here. The Packers’ play at inside linebacker was so bad that they moved star outside linebacker Clay Matthews midseason. That’s a waste of a gifted pass rusher, so McKinney is an OK pick here. He looks the part of a strong-side inside linebacker in the Packers’ scheme, and has should help shore up a leaky run defense.
31 New Orleans (from Seattle)
G La’el Collins, 6-4, 305, LSU
The Saints jettisoned left guard Ben Grubbs to the Chiefs, so an offensive lineman like Collins would be ideal.
32 New England
DT Jordan Phillips, 6-5, 329, Oklahoma
Phillips possesses good movement skills and power, and has the frame you simply can’t teach. He’s raw and his motor runs a bit hot and could, but he has the potential to anchor the middle of the Patriots’ defense.