I've always loved the NFL draft. However, only recently did I realize that its meaning to me has proven metamorphic as I've grown older.
See, as a kid, I didn't have a favorite collegiate team, so the draft allowed me to connect the players I watched on Saturdays with the NFL teams I watched on Sundays.
"The Dolphins drafted O.J. McDuffie? I remember watching him play for Penn State on ABC's Big Ten telecasts!"
I thought it was so cool to watch a college football game and know that the next Miami Dolphins first-round pick might be possibly be on the field. I remember feeling particularly excited about drafting then-Louisville cornerback Sam Madison in the second round of the 1997 draft, as I'd watched quite a Cardinals games during Madison's career. Oddly, I was pretty familiar with Patrick Surtain when the Dolphins drafted him in the second round the following year. As a kid, when you see players you like drafted to your favorite team, it's a thrill. Will the guy be any good? Who knows? But you were there for his collegiate career. Remember, this was before most people had the Internet, so television was still the best place to watch NFL prospects in action.
Sometime around 2001, my focus regarding the NFL draft transitioned from familiarity to "how will this guy make the Dolphins a better football team?" Plenty of mock drafts that spring gave the Dolphins Wisconsin cornerback Jamar Fletcher. I wasn't a fan--I'd seen Jamar play for the Badgers, and I always struggled to understand why he was even considered a first-round pick. Rather, my favorite prospect available that year was University of Miami linebacker Dan Morgan. My second-favorite prospect? University of Michigan guard Steve Hutchinson. Some things never change, right?
All of that is to point out that when it comes to the NFL draft, there's something for everyone. Maybe you like the familiarity aspect; maybe you're 100 percent serious about researching the players you most want on your favorite team. Whatever the reason, it's a perfectly acceptable one. The NFL draft is fun. It breaks up the monotony of the offseason and can reinvigorate interest and excitement in an under-performing franchise.
With the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine and Free Agency just around the corner, let's take a look at how the draft's first round would shake out if it took place right now. Keep in mind two things: No. 1, this is a mock draft created by a Dolphins writer and featured on a Dolphins site; and No. 2, this is supposed to be fun, so don't take it too seriously! The purpose of any pre-combine mock is to see where draft prospects stand prior to their time working out in Indianapolis. Make sense? Great, let's get to it.
Laremy Tunsil, OT Ole Miss
I'd love to go trailblazer with this selection and give the Titans a player not named Laremy Tunsil. Facts are facts, though, and with Marcus Mariota the guy under center in Tennessee, the focus should now shift to keeping him alive in the pocket. Tunsil recently received the tag "best offensive tackle available since Tyron Smith in 2011," which is ironic when you consider that many, many scout analysts and mock drafters that year thought Smith was just another USC lineman bust waiting to happen. Football is funny that way.
Carson Wentz, QB North Dakota State
If new Browns head coach Hue Jackson learned anything from his time as Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator, it's this: it helps to have a big arm when you play in the AFC North. Also consider the fact that the weather Wentz would face in Cincy, Pittsburgh and Baltimore would be a big improvement over the elements he saw while playing for North Dakota State (except at home, of course--the Bisons play in a dome).
Ronnie Stanley, OT Notre Dame
We've seen some of the glow drain from Ronnie Stanley's draft stock as of late, but that's simply a product of other prospects raising their pre-combine stock. Expect the Stanley hype to come screaming back with a vengeance after the Combine, as the former Notre Dame tackle has all the tools to dominate the left side of the line at the NFL level. Long (6-foot-5) and gifted athletically, Stanley is a natural, easy mover with quick feet at a position where the Chargers have settled for plodding personnel ever since Marcus McNeill's retirement in 2012.
Myles Jack, LB UCLA
Hmmm. Take a future franchise quarterback or shove in all your chips and go for the terminator-like linebacker prospect? Because the Cowboys can win right now, let's go with the win-now selection. Myles Jack, former UCLA uber-linebacker, has the ability to play multiple positions in the second level, so the Cowboys could pair him with Sean Lee, or perhaps move Jack to middle linebacker after Lee gets hurt three games into the season. Whatever the usage, Jack will fit in just fine. A true home-run player at a position that rarely carries high first-round appeal.
Jalen Ramsey, CB/S Florida State
If you're a betting person, your money is on Ramsey as the best overall prospect in this year's draft. Likely a safety at the NFL level, Ramsey just drips natural athleticism, football IQ and gamebreaking ability. Of course, don't rule him out as an NFL corner just yet--he was a terror on the perimeter for the Seminoles in 2015.
If Ramsey isn't available here, logic suggests the Jags will go with a pass-rusher--DeForest Buckner, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, etc.
Jared Goff, QB California
Southern California-based Rams fans are undoubtedly thrilled that their team is back in Los Angeles, but it will take much more than longtime loyalty to sell out the massive L.A. Coliseum. One way to do that: draft a big-ticket quarterback like Jared Goff, perhaps the most talented passer in this year's class. Bonus points awarded for trading up ahead of a division rival in order to get him.
Also, because I've only mocked the first 12 picks in this draft, I'll note that I have Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin to the Ravens in a trade-down scenario. If they remain at this spot, it's either Bosa or Buckner.
DeForest Buckner, DE Oregon
The 49ers' defensive cupboard sure emptied in a hurry. The good news for SF is that DeForest Buckner could end up as a top-three player in this draft, as he brings rare tools and measurables to the defensive line. He has the size (6-foot-7, 300 pounds) and strength to both rush the passer and smother the run as a 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme. However, his lack of true first-step quickness will raise the question of whether he can play end in the 4-3. If he checks out with the latter, expect him to A) move around in a Justin Tuck-type role, and B) slim down a bit from the near-300 pounds he played at while in Eugene. And if it's a defensive end in a 3-4, prepare to watch him occupy space and shut down running lanes like a champ. You won't find many prospects with Buckner's combination of size, strength and athleticism. If Bill Parcells were a GM right now, Buckner would be his No. 1 player. A true planet theory player.
Joey Bosa, DE Ohio State
The availability of Bosa at No. 8 overall sure comes off as a pipe dream, as he's considered by some analysts to be the best overall player available in this draft. Then again, Leonard Williams was considered by many to be the best overall prospect in last year's draft, and he slid to the New York Jets at No. 6 overall. Anything's possible this time of year. Bosa, an absolute wrecking ball at Ohio State, is a natural 4-3 defensive end who plays with heavy hands and can slam the run as well as any pass-rusher prospect available this spring. New Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph last month said it will be a priority to find more single-block situations for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh--one way to do that is sign former Dolphin Paul Soliai, an absolute load at the 1-technique defensive tackle spot; another way is to bring in a powerhouse pass-rusher of Bosa's caliber. Or do both. That sounds good, too.
Long shot? Maybe. Check back after the Scouting Combine.
Fun fact: Bosa is a South Florida native whose father, John, was drafted by the Dolphins 16th overall out of Boston College in the 1987 NFL Draft.
Noah Spence, DE Eastern Kentucky
Spence might best the most gifted pass-rusher available in this year's draft, but character concerns and the likelihood that he'll be an outside linebacker at the pro level could push him out of the top 10. His fall won't exceed the 15th pick, however, and if he crushes his workouts and interviews well this spring, he's a candidate to go as high as No. 5 to Jacksonville.
Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Florida
Hargreaves is, for my money, the best cover corner in this draft. A stinky Citrus Bowl performance against Michigan on New Year's Day hasn't hurt his stock too much, mainly because he has the athleticism and technical prowess to play in just about any scheme. His long speed is still in question; his vertical leap and ball skills are not. Near-complete player with a decent amount of polish.
Sheldon Rankins, DT Louisville
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme historically has been powered by an ultra-disruptive 5-technique. In San Francisco, it was Justin Smith; in Chicago, it might be Sheldon Rankins. Put the Louisville product next to standout Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman and watch the magic happen.
Jaylon Smith, OLB Notre Dame
New Orleans' defense is in need of a complete reboot, so the Saints can afford to be patient and draft potentially the best linebacker in a very strong positional class. When healthy, Smith is an absolute show at the outside linebacker position. Also worth noting that his abilities as a pass-rusher might have been underutilized during his time in South Bend.