The draft is still more than two months away, but it’s never too early for fans to get an idea where the top college talent is going to drop. This is Version 1.0 of our mock and it will change over the next 10 weeks as free-agent signings and losses are factored in, combine results raise and lower player stock ratings, and school pro days and private workouts get teams excited about specific players. At this point, our first mock is centered on team needs. If those needs are fixed via free agency, obviously those picks will change. But, as things currently stand, this is our mock draft blueprint – identifying the top players with teams with needs that match the talent. Until the needs are addressed, they will remain points of emphasis heading into draft weekend.
1. Kansas City – Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah. The Chiefs have a lot of problems that need addressing, not the least of which being is whether or not they can re-sign offensive tackle Branden Albert. If they don’t, this pick could easily be Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M. There may be a groundswell of late support for QB Geno Smith of West Virginia, but it would clearly be a reach to take him this early. K.C. will look to drop down in the draft if they get a solid offer. If they stay here and sign Albert, Lotulelei is their best option.
2. Jacksonville – Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M. It seems like every year the Jaguars are drafting defensive ends with little to no success. Much like the Lions and wide receivers before landing Calvin Johnson, Moore is a breath of fresh air that may finally reverse the curse for one of the most consistently bad sack numbers of recent years.
3. Oakland – Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama. There was a time when the Raiders stunk but had the league’s top cornerbacks. Now they stink and have brutal corner play. Things got so bad last year that safety Michael Huff got pushed over to corner so the Raiders wouldn’t get burned on every deep pass thrown. If Lotulelei is still on the board, they likely won’t hesitate to jump on him, but with Peyton Manning in the division, in order to get closer to the top, Oakland has to stop the passing game and Milliner is a big step in that direction.
4. Philadelphia – Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M. There’s no guarantee he will make it past Kansas City, or someone might trade up to get him before this, but the Eagles would be thrilled if he fell to them here. He is head and shoulders the best tackle coming out of the draft and he could help out an O-line that suffered badly last year.
5. Detroit – Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State. The Lions may use every pick in the draft on defense because it is that dismal. An argument can be made that they need two defensive ends and two linebackers in this draft to compete. They already released Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril is a free agent. It has pushed the need for a pass-rushing defensive end higher and force Detroit’s hand. This may be the pick where someone steps up to try to swing a trade to land a quarterback (too high).
6. Cleveland – Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia. The Browns need a pass-rushing OLB to make their 3-4 defense work and Jones led the country in sacks last year and should have more open space in the NFL than he got with his constant double-teams and chips in college. The Browns need help and might be a candidate for a QB with this pick, but more likely will go to add the best athlete they can find and, at this point, it may be Jones, especially for what the Browns need.
7. Arizona – Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. With the recent success of athletic young quarterbacks, the Cardinals need something to energize the fan base. They tried this same move a few years ago but failed. Since Kurt Warner has retired, the Cards have started Kevin Kolb, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, Brian Hoyer and Max Hall at QB. If any fan base needs a reason to get excited, it’s the QB-starved Cardinals fans.
8. Buffalo – Matt Barkley, QB, USC. The Bills signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to a monster contract two years ago and he has since proved to be an expensive mistake. Personally, I hate this pick because I think it is way too high for Barkley, but he has the kind of mechanics that will look really good at the Combine and in individual workouts. In recent years, QBs have climbed up draft boards to inordinately high positions, yet still get taken. Barkley would appear to be one of those types of picks.
9. New York Jets – Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon. For a team that was so consistent the previous three seasons, the Jets look like a complete mess on both sides of the ball. They have needs everywhere, so the best option is to take a versatile athlete who can become a starter where he fits best and, in the interim, compete for a job at either DE or as a pass-rush linebacker. The Jets have a lot of rebuilding to do and the more playmakers they can get, the better.
10. Tennessee – Chance Warmack, G, Alabama. The Titans have committed to sticking with Chris Johnson as the offensive face of the franchise, so upgrading the offensive line is a must. Warmack is a dominant guard who has drawn comparisons to Steve Hutchinson, who is retiring after spending last season with Tennessee. Warmack may take over his spot at left guard and hold it for the next decade.
11. San Diego – Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan. This pick may not be Fisher, but it almost certainly will be an offensive linemen. The collapse is almost completely traceable to the ineffective play of the offensive line. A case can be made that there could be three or four new starters on the San Diego O-line. Fisher is a small-college prospect who was a man against boys vs. the competition he faced. He may not be the guy on San Diego’s radar, but O-line is going to be addressed this offseason – in the draft and free agency.
12. Miami – Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee. The Dolphins saw Brandon Marshall as more of a headache than a playmaker, but when he went to Chicago, so did any deep threat for Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins have a slew of No. 3 and 4 receivers but don’t have a legitimate NFL starter. Things are so bad that, even if they sign a veteran in free agency to be a No. 1 receiver, they may take Patterson as well to give Tannehill a fighting chance to develop as a quarterback.
13. Tampa Bay – Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State. Ronde Barber has been amazing in his 16 seasons, but he is at the end of the line and the Bucs traded away Aqib Talib because he didn’t fit in the new tough-guy mindset of the coaching staff. The Bucs have talent, but can’t come up short in the secondary, especially when they’re facing Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton six times a year. To have any chance, the Bucs need to keep the secondary strong and nobody can do that at this point better than Banks.
14. Carolina – Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida. The Panthers used to be dominant at defensive tackle, but the shelf is completely bare at this point and arguably their best DT (Dwan Edwards) is heading to free agency. Floyd is a run-stopper who has the ability to collapse the pocket, so he will be a centerpiece in the rebuilding of the Panthers defense and will be an immediate starter – both based on talent and the lack of tangible competition.
15. New Orleans – Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU. The Saints need a pass-rushing threat to help the beleaguered Big Easy defense get off the field. As long as they have Drew Brees on offense, the Saints will score enough points to stay in games. What they need now are defensive players.
16. St. Louis – Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma. The Rams are still paying brittle Sam Bradford a ton (more than Andrew Luck and RG3 combined!) and have little to show for it. But much of the problem has been the lack of solid line play, especially at left tackle. The Rodger Saffold experiment has been a failure and, at best, he could become a decent right tackle. Johnson is game-ready and could immediately upgrade the blind side for Bradford.
17. Pittsburgh – Alec Ogletree, OLB, Alabama. If there is a marriage of player and team in the draft, it’s this one. Anyone who saw ‘Bama play last year couldn’t help but notice Ogletree. He made plays from sideline to sideline and plays like he has been shot from a cannon. In some systems, he might have to conform to a system, but he will be a glove fit in a Steelers defense that prides itself on toughness and playmaking. He could move up higher our mock chart, but he won’t make it to No. 18 regardless.
18. Dallas – Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri. The Cowboys are just as likely to trade out of this spot – either up or down – because that’s what Jerry Jones does. Jay Ratliff has struggled since signing his megabuck contract, but he needs someone alongside him that can force opposing offenses to pick their poison because they can’t double-team both of them. If Richardson is still on the board, even Trader Jerruh won’t move off of this spot.
19. New York Giants – Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford. For a good team, the Giants have issues at plenty of positions, which was made more significant by the recent blood-purge of veteran contracts like those of Chris Canty, Ahmad Bradshaw and Michael Boley. But, at this point of the draft, a team is looking for a playmaker who can make a difference immediately. Much like Kyle Rudolph or Aaron Hernandez, Ertz is an adequate enough blocker to be on the field most plays, but has the athleticism to stretch a defense down the middle. Martellus Bennett was a Band-Aid on the problem last year, but he’s a free agent and Ertz may be the guy who makes a big offensive impact out of the gate.
20. Chicago – Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina. If an offensive tackle like Fisher or Johnson is still available, the Bears would jump on either one of them. It can be argued that Chicago has the worst offensive tackles in the NFL. J’Marcus Webb is a liability at left tackle. Cooper is a dominant guard and could improve the overall play of the O-line more than taking the fourth- or fifth-highest rated tackle on the list. This is simply a case of more bang for the buck at a position of need – even if not the greatest need.
21. Cincinnati – Ezekiel Ansah, DE/OLB, BYU. The Bengals have made the playoffs the last two years and have the talent on both sides of the ball to continue to be a playoff team. Manny Lawson is a free agent and Rey Maualuga is coming off a brutal year. Depending on how the Bengals want to use Ansah, he could be a first- and second-down linebacker and a pass rushing specialist on third downs.
22. St. Louis (from Washington) – Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas. Having already addressed their most pressing need at offensive tackle with their own first-round pick, the RG3 trade is starting to bear fruit. The safety position is a clear weakness on the Rams defense and Craig Dahl, a free agent, was especially burnable. Vaccaro may be able to step in immediately and make a significant impact, much like Harrison Smith did with the Vikings defense last year.
23. Minnesota – Manti Te’o, MLB, Notre Dame. This wouldn’t have even been possible if not for the crazy girlfriend hoax story. Since then, Te’o’s stock has been falling fast. But there comes a time when talent overrides potential character issues. The Vikings would be a perfect landing spot for Te’o because the Vikings are like Notre Dame West already with John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph and Harrison Smith already key members of the team. They could help take Te’o under their wings and keep him focused on football, where there are few players better. If not for the girlfriend hoax, he would have been a lock to go in the first five to 10 picks. As things stand now, there is every chance he will remain on the board until this spot, where the Vikings need a middle linebacker to be a fixture next to Chad Greenway for the next several years and be a rock in the middle of the Vikings defense that has been missing since before E.J. Henderson snapped his leg in Arizona.
24. Indianapolis – D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama. The Colts already realize what they have in Andrew Luck. What they need to do now is protect their investment. The most glaring immediate need is at right tackle, where Fluker can step in as a rookie and provide an upgrade. Many viewed the Colts as the type of team that was going to need three or four years just to be a playoff team. Having accomplished that just one year into the reclamation project, they can now tweak specific positions to make the team even stronger. If Dwight Freeney leaves, a pass rusher may take precedence, but Fluker would be a logical addition.
25. Seattle – Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina. Seattle has a very good young defense, but the one primary deficiency is at the interior defensive line. Williams has the ability to collapse the pocket and give QBs less time to get rid of the ball, which could make the ball-hawk secondary in Seattle even more deadly and give Bruce Irvin and Red Bryant someone to take the heat off of them.
26. Green Bay – Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama. The Packers have done some amazing things with a brutal collection of running backs. Green Bay has arguably had the worst running game in the NFL since Ahman Green got old and the Pack became much more reliant on the passing game. Lacy has the skill set (he has no glaring weaknesses) that he could be to Green Bay what Adrian Peterson was to the Vikings when fans saw what a talented running back could do.
27. Houston – Keenan Allen, WR, Cal. The Texans have a dominant offense, but Andre Johnson is getting a little long in the tooth and needs a young, athletic playmaker to take the heat off of him. Allen isn’t a speed merchant, but he is a big target who is physical and gets separation to get yards after the catch. He isn’t overly flashy, but a lot of teams have him rated as the top wide receiver on their boards and to get a player like that this late in the first round should be viewed as a gift.
28. Denver – Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the starting defensive tackles (Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson) are suspect at best, both are free agents. Even if Denver was to bring both of them back, Hankins could have a legitimate chance to beat out one of them for a starting spot. There are several defensive tackle options at this point, but Hankins has the big-game ability that may separate him from the run on defensive linemen that will take place early on Day 2 of the draft.
29. New England – Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech. There is a good chance that the Patriots will hit the draft without Wes Welker, so getting someone to line up opposite Brandon Lloyd will be imperative. He earned himself a lot of money at the Senior Bowl and just has the look of the type of player that fills an important role.
30. Atlanta – Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU. The Falcons have a lot of issues for being a team that was the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but perhaps none more prominent than at defensive end. Things got so bad during the 2012 season, that the team simply cut Ray Edwards out of frustration. They need to get an infusion of young talent here, so, even if they sign a veteran as a short-term fix, they need to get someone they can groom for the future – even if the future isn’t immediately.
31. San Francisco – Matt Elam, S, Florida. This will be a coveted pick as teams try to trade back into the first round to get a player they covet. If the Niners stay here, the most glaring short-term problem is at safety. Dashon Goldson is a free agent and veteran Donte Whitner was routinely scorched last season. The 49ers will make a push to re-sign Goldson, but Elam could be some of the young blood they need to try to get back to a championship game for the third straight season.
32. Baltimore – Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU. The Ray Lewis story was a good one, but the reality is that he is gone and won’t be coming back. The bigger issue as that Dannell Ellerbe is a free agent who might get enormous offers if he hits the open market. No matter how you look at it, this is a position of draft need even if Ellerbe returns with Minter stepping into some big shoes.