A lot has changed in the NFL since the season ended, and more change is still to come. Shocking trades, free agent acquisitions and player cuts will be made to many NFL rosters across the league between now and the NFL draft.
With the combine officially in the books, there are still pro days and workouts that can further boost or destroy prospects’ draft stock. The production of this mock draft will look very different than my final one. There are no player trades or predictions in this projection, and several of these picks are based on who I think the best players available are and needs that may be targeted for each team.
Not all 32 picks will make perfect sense because teams will choose the best player available (BPA), or best need for their organization moving forward — even if it doesn't make sense to many fans.
This mock does not include any free agent signings or potential trade up/down scenarios, even if any are mentioned as possibilities.
Here is my projection of the 32 first-round picks in the 2018 NFL draft following the combine.
1. Cleveland Browns
Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Not throwing at the combine was a surprising move, but Darnold has plenty of tape to convince teams his throwing ability is exceptional. The Browns are in desperate need of a franchise-changing quarterback, and Darnold has the potential to be that, even though it’s far from guaranteed. Darnold doesn’t come out as polished and pro-ready as Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning — few are these days — and the way he ended his college career could scare teams off from selecting him so highly.
The Cotton Bowl meltdown was a complete team effort for USC, but Darnold looked unpolished in both decision making and progression reading against Ohio State. Turnovers were a problem for Darnold (35 turnovers in two seasons as a starter), but USC depended way too much on Darnold’s abilities. An extremely predictable game plan and horrendous offensive line protection against the Buckeyes lead to Darnold’s forced throws. He finished 26 of 45 passing for 356 yards, but committed three turnovers and took eight sacks in the loss. Eight sacks in one game will drive a QB into hysteria, but even elite tools can’t save bad mechanics and habits under pressure — something Darnold must break before starting in the NFL.
Saquon Barkley could be the pick here, but the Browns risk losing out on Sam Darnold. The Browns failed miserably twice by passing up on a potential franchise quarterback (Carson Wentz in 2016 and Deshaun Watson in ‘17) and Josh Allen’s 56 percent completion rate will force the Browns to make the safer pick in Darnold.
Darnold won’t last past No. 3, as a team like Denver would certainly trade up for him; Cleveland recognizes that.
2. New York Giants
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Eli Manning looked washed last year, but a down year can’t force the Giants to hit the panic button. Josh Allen and Josh Rosen will both be incredibly tempting here, but the Giants won 11 games two years ago with Manning. The Giants struggled mightily in the run game last season, and Barkley is an elite talent that can open up a lot for this explosive offense that is still waiting to explode. The Giants have a mediocre offensive line, but taking a lineman at No. 2 is a bit high considering Barkley is still on the board. One last year with Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and now Barkley can challenge the NFC. If Manning bottoms out, they can see what they have in 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb before potentially making run at a QB in next year’s draft.
3. Indianapolis Colts
Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
The Colts still have their franchise quarterback on the shelf due to injury because they failed to protect him. Without Andrew Luck, they haven’t been able to pass, and even with Luck, they haven’t been able to block. If Luck’s injury isn't a blatant cry for offensive line help, then the Colts are just ignoring the obvious.
Nelson is a polished product who can start day-one in the NFL. He’s nasty, physical and finishes his assignments into the ground. Nelson also excels in the open field as a blocker, and offers above-average athleticism for a guard who has excellent footwork.
Defensive end Bradley Chubb also makes a lot of sense here, and would be tough to pass up, but last time I checked, defensive end wasn't the direct causation of severally injuring your franchise quarterback.
4. Cleveland Browns (from Houston Texans)
Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama
The Browns already selected their quarterback, leaving them with the most talented defensive end Chubb — who they don’t need — or the most talented defensive back in the draft, Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Browns could find themselves in a trade back situation with whoever loses the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, but ultimately, I don’t think they’ll find a good enough offer with the plethora of QBs still available.
Fitzpatrick has outstanding range, playmaking ability and coverage versatility. Pairing him as a high safety with Jabrill Peppers hovering around the box makes Cleveland’s safety duo scary.
Josh Allen is another option here if the Browns pass on Darnold at No. 1.
5. Denver Broncos
Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Denver would be ecstatic if Allen lasts until fifth overall. John Elway saw Allen on display firsthand at the Potato Bowl and loved what he saw. After the combine? He must be infatuated with the big-armed QB.
Teams will be wary of Allen’s completion percentage this year, but the lack of help Allen had was grossly noticeable. Receivers were running the wrong routes, dropping passes that hit them in the hands and were flat out incapable of making a play after the catch. Additionally, a putrid offensive line had Allen running for his life for most of the season.
Allen had a terrific combine and really showed his capabilities as a thrower. His arm is NFL-ready and his size allows him to take even the heaviest of hits from defenders. He needs to see the field a bit better and not always throw his fastball to every target, but Elway and company can work with him through the start of the season as the Broncos enter a retooling stage.
6. New York Jets
Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State
Remember when star defensive end Leonard Williams fell to New York in 2015, serving as a horror film to the rest of the AFC East? That horror film could have a sequel in 2018. Due to the desperate need for quarterbacks in the NFL, the Jets could see one of the most talented players in the draft fall into their lap at sixth overall.
The Jets are firmly in the race to sign Cousins, and are reportedly willing to pay whatever it takes. Assuming the Jets sign their man, the need for QB is off the board for New York who can now take the best player available.
Chubb is a stud who can beat you with speed, strength, tenacity and excellent pass-rushing abilities. As the most polished pass-rusher in the draft, he’s a day-one starter who can team up with Williams and cause nightmares for opposing offensive lines.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Derwin James, S, Florida St.
James was one of the winners of the combine and re-established his top-10 stock after his pedestrian season with FSU. Is he a safety or a cornerback? Who cares. Ask the Jaguars if they cared about that question with Jalen Ramsey when he came out of FSU — you’ll get a resounding no.
James is an immediate upgrade for the Buccaneers, regardless of where they play him. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds he turned in a 4.48 40-yard dash and added 21 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. James is a special athlete who didn’t have the best brought out of him as a Seminole. His tackling needs work, but his coverage skills and playmaking abilities will be a huge boost to Tampa Bay’s secondary.
8. Chicago Bears
Tremaine Edmunds, DE/OLB, Virginia Tech
The Bears have needs all over the roster, but QB isn’t one of them with last year’s draft of Mitchell Trubisky. Josh Rosen’s fall continues out of the top-10 barring a trade, and the Bears gladly take a phenomenal athlete who is only 19 years old.
Edmunds has range that not many linebackers can match, and at 6-foot-5, 253 pounds has the speed to catch up to anyone on the field. A linebacker/edge rusher at that size who runs a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash is freakish and doesn't come along often. Edmunds and Leonard Floyd could team up for Chicago’s front seven and form one of the fastest linebacking duos to ever take the field. The Bears’ defense of old could slowly be on the horizon.
9. San Francisco 49ers
Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
With Reuben Foster’s off the field issues, the 49ers are left wondering if they can truly count on the former Alabama linebacker. While San Fransisco’s hopes are still high for Foster, the best way to fix a team’s concern is by drafting a new hope: Roquan Smith.
Smith was the best linebacker in college football last year. At 6-foot-1, 236 pounds Smith is a bit undersized, but his tremendous speed (4.51-second 40-time) makes up for it. Not only will Smith shut down the run inside by lighting people up, he’ll chase down the quickest athletes on the field from sideline to sideline. He doesn’t come out completely polished in pass defense, but pair him with Foster and the 49ers could become the bullies of the NFC. In a couple of years, the Bears vs. 49ers will be must-see T.V.
However, keep an eye on San Fransisco here. They are a prime candidate for trading back, should a team feel the need to move up for Rosen or Baker Mayfield.
10. Oakland Raiders
Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
The Raiders sorely miss out on both Edmunds and Smith, but gain a cornerback to solidify their secondary. It’s not Oakland’s first choice, but they get great value by seeing Ward fall to No. 10. If it weren’t for Chubb falling to No. 6, the Jets would definitely take Ward, who put on a show at the combine. He ran an eye-popping 4.32-second 40-time and was impressive in on-field drills and workouts. Ward is this draft’s best cornerback, despite being undersized at 5-foot-10, 191 pounds. His raw athleticism and natural coverage ability can’t be taught, nor passed up in the draft.
11. Miami Dolphins
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
If Edmunds or Smith fell, this would be a tough decision for Miami. But in this scenario, with both off the board, Baker Mayfield is an easy selection for the Dolphins.
No, this isn’t because Ryan Tannehill can’t stay healthy. In fact, Tannehill should be the starter for the rest of 2018, while Mayfield learns under head coach Adam Gase. The narrative that Tannehill can’t stay healthy is preposterous. It’s due to zero protection from the offensive line; not because Tannehill’s fragile.
However, he could be a trade candidate if Miami is looking to fully rebuild under Gase. This isn’t meant to stir a Tannehill debate; if you supply an elite defense around him, you can win with him. How far can he take you? Completely unknown. He had the best season of his career under Gase before he went down with the knee injury last year, but the bottom line is he’ll be 30 in July, he hasn’t performed at a high level consistently enough throughout his career— especially with progression reading and pocket awareness — and he’s coming off two major knee injuries.
He’s smart, mature and leads by example on and off the field. Coaches love him, players love him, and everyone feels for him and the misuse of this franchise during his career.
But the Dolphins rarely draft a QB in the first round, and never know if they’ll be in this position again anytime soon. Gase loves Mayfield; Mayfield loves former Sooner Kenny Stills and the thought of playing for Gase and Miami. It makes a ton of sense for Miami to build around a guy who is a gamer and a leader. Baker wants to beat a defense for four quarters and let them know about it. The idea of having a bonafide alpha as a quarterback who can get under the arrogance of New England, and buffoonery of New York and Buffalo is exactly what the Dolphins have lacked for several years.
There are some maturity concerns with Mayfield. Some will say it’s competitive nature, others will claim he’s not their cup of tea. Fine.
But Mayfield’s ability to sling it all over the yard and beat you with his legs when he has to, makes a deadly dual threat for NFL defenses to cover. It’s unfair to compare him to Drew Brees, but Mayfield has tools and mechanics that are similar; both quarterbacks find a way to get the job done at an elite level with what they have.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
There’s always a surprise pick in every draft, this year it’ll be Rosen to the Bengals. Since the beginning of college football’s 2017 season, Rosen was considered a top pick for the 2018 draft.
But another injury-riddled season, followed by an underwhelming combine performance results in Rosen falling out of the top-10. After multiple reports claiming Bengals QB Andy Dalton is on borrowed time, and A.J. McCarron is heading for free agency, the Bengals are in need a facelift. What better way to enforce change than drafting a quarterback.
Rosen is the best natural thrower in the draft when given time in the pocket. He can be used as a team’s starter tomorrow if need be, and can make every throw that is asked of him. He still needs polish on decision making under pressure, and he must learn how to feel pocket pressure without crumbling, but he has a high ceiling as a quarterback in the NFL.
There are many reports claiming Rosen is a poor teammate and a handful off the field, but being selected by Cincinnati — a team notorious for giving second chances to troubled athletes — may be one of the best options in the draft for him to mature.
Again, this is not factoring in if a team trades up in the top-10 for Rosen, which is very possible
13. Washington Redskins
Vita Vea, DT, Washington
Good luck running against a 6-foot-4, 347-pound bulldozer. As one of the strongest players in the entire draft, Vita Vea can become an enforcer on Washington’s defense. He can single handedly anchor a team’s running game, and make offensive linemen look silly attempting to protect the quarterback. The Redskins ranked dead last in run defense, allowing over 134 yards per game. Washington desperately needs defensive line help, and Vea can immediately provide that.
14. Green Bay Packers
Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA
The Packers No. 1 need this offseason is pass-rushing. In a thin pass-rushing draft class, selecting Marcus Davenport is a must for Green Bay. The Packers lack speed, athleticism and explosion off the edge, and Davenport can develop into a productive edge rusher with coaching. He needs to add secondary pass-rush moves and may take a year to fully develop, but he has a lot of upside.
The Packers could address offensive line, receiver or secondary here, but only if Davenport isn't available at 14.
15. Arizona Cardinals
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
One of the most exciting players in the draft is also a huge need for the Arizona Cardinals. Jackson is a once in a generation quarterback who can sling a deep ball with a flick of the wrist, and outrun an entire defense in the blink of an eye. He’s not fully polished as a passer yet, but his tools show he has sky-high potential. His mid-to-deep ball accuracy is exceptional, and he can throw through any window with his arm strength. His knack for making a play when nothing is there while keeping his eyes down field is a very underrated aspect of his game. We rarely see dual-threat quarterbacks read through their progressions when scrambling, but Jackson does so very effectively. If he’s developed correctly, he’ll be a dual threat prodigy we haven’t seen since Michael Vick if he’s developed correctly.
16. Baltimore Ravens
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome loves Alabama players, and Joe Flacco needs more weapons.
Ridley was originally projected to go in the top-10, but he didn’t blow up the combine the way some thought he would. His route running is the best in the draft, and his hands compliment his athleticism to make a well-rounded prospect.
Breshad Perriman may never pan out the way Baltimore hopes he can, as the former highly-regarded receiver can’t stay on the field. Ridley can help ease the pain of the missed draft pick from 2015.
17. Los Angeles Chargers
Connor Williams, OT/G, Texas
Williams could be penciled in at guard or a tackle, and would help the Los Angeles Chargers protect Philip Rivers during his remaining years. His size, quickness and footwork should convert into a tackle, allowing him to cut off angles for edge rushers. Pairing Williams with Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp can turn an area of need into a strength moving forward. Rivers with time to throw can be lethal for the rest of the AFC.
18. Seattle Seahawks
Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa
The Legion of Boom was special during its day, and will probably have an ESPN documentary after it someday. The time has come for a complete rebuild in Seattle, and Josh Jackson is a great player to start that process.
Jackson is lengthy ballhawk who creates turnovers in his sleep. His recovery speed allows him to mirror bigger, faster receivers, baiting quarterbacks into bad decisions. The Seahawks need to hit on this pick for their secondary now more than ever.
19. Dallas Cowboys
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
The Cowboys find themselves in a difficult position. They have growing needs at every position as their roster goes through an awkward transition, but there’s no clear cut choice at 19.
Selecting Payne may not be a sexy choice for an organization who loves grabbing headlines, but he solves some of Dallas’ problems. Payne flashed his potential with an outstanding College Football Playoff. Why did it take him so long to produce pass-rushing? One could argue it was schematics and assignment protocol for Nick Saban’s defense, leaving Payne limited opportunities to showcase his quickness and strength. The tape certainly isn't indicative of what Payne is as a prospect, but if he can play like he did in the playoffs and at the combine, his upside is high.
20. Detroit Lions
Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
The Lions fielded trade offers for Ebron, their top tight end and third-leading receiver last season, during the NFL combine last week, ESPN reported on Tuesday. Ebron has been on the hot seat since early last season, when he was struggling with drops and failing to meet expectations.
It seems imminent that Detroit will move on from Ebron any minute. While offensive line and running back makes sense here, the Lions need to make a splash for another playmaker to compliment quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Goedert is a weapon that has the potential to be a top-5 TE in the NFL. Goedart’s huge frame is going to be extremely difficult to deal with for NFL defenders. He’s an elite athlete who will make fantasy football owners drool. We get carried away with comparisons, but Goedert is very comparable to Zach Ertz with an outrageous catch radius and terrific hands that snatch the ball away from defenders. He doesn’t solely rely on physicality or size either, he’ll gracefully deke defenses until he gets to his destination. The senior’s blocking ability remains questionable, as he faced inferior competition all year.
21. Buffalo Bills
Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida
I expect the Bills to trade up and make a splash for a quarterback, but if they don’t, there’s a hole to be filled at nearly every position. If they stand pat, Hughes makes a lot of sense for a depleted secondary. His tape is very solid in coverage and run support, and he offers a lot of toughness the Bills’ secondary lacks. Hughes also adds playmaking ability when the ball is in the air, and can pose as a threat as a return specialist. If Hughes runs a good 40-time at his pro day, he’ll be a lock for the top-25.
22. Buffalo Bills (from Kansas City Chiefs)
Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
The Bills could lose Jordan Matthews to free agency, and the development of Zay Jones is far from guaranteed. While Sutton’s tape is inconsistent and less than stellar, his combine performance shows what he can be when he’s at his best. He’s a big, physical receiver that can use his body to shield off defenders, but he doesn't always play like one. Drops were an issue for Sutton, and separation concerns linger. However, he showed he has elite agility and quickness in and out of breaks with his combine workout times, leaving many to believe he can reach his potential if coached well. Buffalo is a perfect opportunity to do so.
23. Los Angeles Rams
Harold Landry, Edge, Boston College
Following the trade of Robert Quinn to Miami, the L.A. Rams have a sudden need for a pass-rusher. Explosive edge rusher Harold Landry can be a cheaper, younger replacement for the hole that was left from Quinn’s departure. Landry was a bit banged up during his last season at BC, but his 4.64 40-time, 6.88-second three-cone and 4.19 20-yard shuttle rekindled the flame to his stock. If he can stay healthy, he’s a dynamic edge-rusher who will add speed to an already fast defense.
24. Carolina Panthers
Will Hernandez, G, UTEP
With guard Andrew Norwell set to hit free agency, it’s makes perfect sense for the Panthers to reload at guard with Hernandez. He can move people at the point of attack and pull defenders like rag dolls. The Panthers run a power-running scheme that Hernandez’s game fits right into. It’s worth noting that Hernandez has surrendered only four pressures over the last two years. This will put a smile on Cam Newton’s face.
25. Tennessee Titans
Isaiah Wynn, G, Georgia
The Titans could go receiver, tight end or edge-rusher, but the players remaining in the first round would be a bit of a reach for those three positions. Wynn has a massive frame that will transition into a guard for Tennessee. Not only is Wynn as strong as an ox, but he provide sneaky athleticism and quickness for someone his size. Wynn’s versatility as a guard will allow Marcus Mariota to get out on space and use run-pass options to destabilize a defense.
26. Atlanta Falcons
Taven Bryan, DT, Florida
The departure of Dontari Poe leaves the Atlanta Falcons with a need for interior defensive linemen. Former Florida bruiser Taven Bryan can upgrade the depth in for the Falcons by solidifying the defensive tackle position. Bryan improved every year at UF, tallying 37 total tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks in his last season as a Gator. He shows a combination of size, power and athleticism to split double teams he routinely takes on. His rip move can sling linemen around, causing the pocket to collapse quickly. Bryan certainly has the physical and athletic traits of a first rounder but he’s not a finished product and lacks polished intangibles.
If Atlanta can teach him and remain patient with his growth, he could develop into an interior force. There’s no reason why he can’t reach his ceiling, and no reason why Atlanta can’t bring it out of him, given their history of player development.
27. New Orleans Saints
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
The Saints were hoping to grab their QB of the future, add another weapon to the offense or continue to shore up the front seven on defense. Rashaan Evans will bring toughness, speed, and power as a tackler. He’s versatile, athletic and can even serve as an edge rusher in certain scenarios. Evans can be a key cog to the Saints’ defense and bring tenacity to a linebacking core that lacks talent and depth. It’ll be interesting to see what his 40-time is on Alabama’s pro day. If he runs well, he could find himself as a top-20 pick.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
Vander Esch is a 6-foot-4, 256 pound linebacker with 4.65 speed and nearly 34-inch arms. In other words, he’ll be a problem for his opponents in the NFL. His on-field athleticism shows he can rush and cover. His high energy level is consistent and lasts until the whistle blows, which is what every team in the NFL could use. Vander Esch has excellent technique when tackling in the open field, and offers run support inside or pass rushing outside. His ability to mirror receivers up the seam and stay grounded on double moves inside, shows he can be relied on in coverage at the next level.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
D.J. Chark, WR, LSU
No one thought D.J. Chark would be a first-round pick. Yet, after blowing up the combine and running a 4.34 40-yard dash, Chark ran himself right into the first round. The Jaguars are set to lose Allen Robinson to free agency, and Blake Bortles needs another go-to weapon on offense. Chark can fill the void by bringing blazing speed and home run playmaking ability that the Jaguars don’t have.
He averaged 21.9 yards per catch for LSU last season (40 for 874), which ranked sixth in the nation, and brings the length and catch radius NFL coaches like at 6-foot-3, per NFL.com.
The Jags could look at tight end here, but with Robinson’s departure and a thin WR group of free agents, Chark makes more sense in terms of value. Mike Gesicki or Hayden Hurst could be two alternatives, should Jacksonville decide to draft a tight end.
30. Minnesota Vikings
Billy Price, C/G, Ohio State
The Minnesota Vikings are a couple of pieces away from making it to the Super Bowl. Experiencing a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was a tough way to end the season, but the Vikings enter 2018 as one of the favorites. While they await Kirk Cousins’ decision, one need they can fill is by adding to the offensive line. Quarterback is a need, especially if they lose out on Cousins and Case Keenum, but protecting the QB is equally as important. There are no QB’s left in the first round that’s worth selecting at 30, but Billy Price would make a terrific addition to the Vikings’ line. He’s arguably the most versatile lineman in the draft, and offers dominance at both guard and center. He’s a light-footed, quick and lengthy athlete that can truly excel at either lineman position moving forward.
31. New England Patriots
Lorenzo Carter, Edge, Georgia
What's the best way to replace Chandler Jones? Draft a freak athlete with a similar play style. The Patriots had one of their worst defenses of the Bill Belichick era, last year. There’s only so much Tom Brady and company could do to mask that. It’s time the Patriots re-tool the defense. Lorenzo Carter is a freak athlete who brings uncanny speed and quickness as an edge rusher. He never quite reached his potential at Georgia, but he flashed his rare talent last season. He’s a bit thin and will have to add bulk to his lower half, but he’s precisely what the Patriots have misses since Jones’ departure, and exactly the type of player Belichick can bring the best out of.
32. Philadelphia Eagles
Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State
For the first time ever, the Philadelphia Eagles won a Super Bowl -- and they did it without some of their key players. Now? They’re in a position to comfortably select BPA with the 32nd pick.
They’re set to lose Trey Burton to free agency, and long-time leader Brent Celek may also be a cap casualty. The Eagles could go offensive tackle, linebacker or safety, but taking hometown hero Mike Gesicki to pair with Zach Ertz makes too much sense for Philly to pass up. Gesicki is a freakishly tall athlete who is arguably the best pass-catching tight end in the draft. He has great hands, speed and athleticism — as shown at the combine — that can become a dangerous piece for an offense, and a nightmare matchup for a defense. The PSU tight end uses his leaping ability and body to shield defenders off, and finds a way to come down with the ball once he’s in the air — more effectively than some receivers in this draft. Gesicki was not much of a blocker during his college career, but neither was Ertz. In fact, Ertz was a poor blocker until this year, where he took a gigantic leap forward.
If the Eagles’ coaching staff can polish Gesicki and improve his blocking ability like they did with Ertz, the Eagles could have the most dynamic tight end duo in the NFL.