— By Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com —
A record number of underclassmen opted to make themselves available for the 2018 NFL draft, boosting an already-solid class into an historic group, especially boosted at quarterback, running back, linebacker and cornerback.
Underclassmen listed in this mock (denoted with an asterisk) had until Monday to officially request special admission by the NFL into the draft. Though it will take a few days to get the actual number, there are believed to be perhaps more than 115 early entrants, topping the previous record of 98 set in 2014. There were 96 early entrants last year.
Though the players eligible for the draft is becoming clear, the selection order won’t be determined until after the Super Bowl and the Combine. Two teams — the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers — finished the regular season tied (including strength of schedule) and will flip a coin at the at the Combine, with the winner earning the ninth overall selection and the loser picking 10th.
Much will change between now and April 28, with free agency certain to shake up every team’s roster and needs. As of now, this is how I see the top 32 picks shaking out:
1. CLEVELAND BROWNS: Sam Darnold, QB, USC*: The hiring of John Dorsey as general manager could be just the first of several moves in Cleveland with head coach Hue Jackson (and the team’s incumbent quarterbacks) very much on the hot seat. As demonstrated in the Cotton Bowl loss to Ohio State, Darnold (just a redshirt sophomore), is by no means a flawless prospect, but he possesses the physical tools and intangibles Dorsey has prioritized in the past.
2. NEW YORK GIANTS: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA*: New Giants general manager Dave Gettleman could spark a housecleaning in New York. An elite runner like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley could be exactly what Eli Manning (and Odell Beckham Jr.) need to get the Giants back on track, but Gettleman may find it hard to pass on a talent like Rosen, whose big arm and personality could make him a perfect fit for Broadway.
3. INDIANPOLIS COLTS: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State*: All indications are that Andrew Luck will be back in 2018, although no one knows how effective he will be. While acknowledging a defense desperately in need of playmakers, adding a dynamic talent like Barkley to soften Luck’s return and make the Colts less one-dimensional seems like an easy choice.
4. CLEVELAND BROWNS (from HOUSTON TEXANS): Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/S, Alabama*: After almost surely drafting a quarterback at No. 1 overall, Dorsey and his staff should be in position to take the best available player here. That could may very well be Fitzpatrick, the reigning Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, who possesses the physical traits and intangibles to project as a decade-long starter in the NFL. Given that Cleveland surrendered four times as many touchdowns passes (28) as it intercepted in 2017, adding Fitzpatrick would make sense on every front.
5. DENVER BRONCOS: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming*: The Broncos have needs other than at quarterback and could be tempted by some of the other, safer prospects. No one has to remind John Elway of the value of a franchise quarterback, however. Allen is quite raw and has struggled in high-profile matchups throughout his career, suggesting that he needs time. No quarterback in this class offers a more intoxicating blend of size, arm and athleticism, however, and Elway has already shown his interest, scouting Allen in person at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
6. NEW YORK JETS: Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: The Jets boast one of the league’s most gifted defensive lines but lack a disruptive element off the edge. In terms of his production, technique and work ethic, Chubb — a two-time All-American coming off a season in which he made 72 tackles, including 24 for loss and 10 sacks — might just be the safest player in the draft.
7. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame*: Given its raw talent, it is hard to fathom that a defensive line as individually talented as Tampa Bay’s could finish last in the NFL in sacks with just 22 over the 16 regular-season games, making a pass rusher an obvious priority. Protecting Jameis Winston and sparking the ground game should also be a priority. Although guards rarely earn top 10 consideration, Nelson is viewed as a future Pro Bowl talent.
8. CHICAGO BEARS: Connor Williams, OT, Texas*: The brave trade up for Mitchell Trubisky last season only works if the Bears are just as aggressive in filling the club’s other shortcomings, including at wide receiver and left tackle, where Charles Leno remains overmatched against the top edge rushers. With no clear-cut top 10 caliber wideouts available in this draft, gutsy general manager Ryan Pace goes for the upgrade up front with Williams, the consensus top-rated tackle.
*9. (tie) OAKLAND RAIDERS: Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama*: Despite the presence of edge rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, the Raiders sacked opposing quarterbacks just 31 times in 2017. To put that into perspective, just one playoff team — Buffalo (27) — finished with fewer. Payne isn’t a pass rusher, himself, recording just three in as many seasons with the Tide, but he is a dominant force in the middle who can draw blocks away from Oakland’s outside rushers, as he demonstrated in winning defensive MVP honors in the national title game.
*10. (tie) SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama*: The future looks bright in San Francisco with general manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and first-round picks Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster each looking like long-term fixes. All that helped spark the 49ers to five consecutive wins to end the 2017 season. Adding a No. 1 target for Garoppolo would seem like the next logical move. Ridley is a silky-smooth athlete who projects well at flanker in Shanahan’s offense.
11. MIAMI DOLPHINS: Derwin James, SS, Florida State*: Coverage and open-field tackling were season-long issues for the Dolphins, who allowed one of the league’s worst touchdown-to-interception ratios in 2017, intercepting just nine passes while giving up 26 touchdowns. After shaking off the rust from missing most of the 2016 season due to injury, James began living up to his billing as the “next Sean Taylor,” proving a difference-maker for the Seminoles.
12. CINCINNATI BENGALS: Billy Price, OG/C, Ohio State: The Bengals raised some eyebrows across the league by firing respected offensive line coach Paul Alexander, but the reality is many of Cincinnati’s struggles on offense in 2017 can be attributed to poor blocking. Price isn’t universally regarded as a top 20 pick, but he’s among the safer prospects in the draft. He could be a plug-and-play upgrade at right guard and provide flexibility at center after next season with current starter Russell Bodine set to be a free agent.
13. WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia*: Washington’s big offseason decisions may start and end with Kirk Cousins, but finding new options for the quarterback on defense will also be a priority with no less than five traditional linebackers set for free agency. Smith, the 2017 Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, lacks ideal bulk but his speed to the flanks and in coverage makes him perfectly suited to today’s modern pass-happy NFL.
14. GREEN BAY PACKERS: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: The Packers’ starting OLB duo of Clay Matthews Jr. (8.5 sacks) and Nick Perry (seven) contributed solid numbers in injury-shortened seasons but more depth and production is needed for a team built to win now. Boasting terrific anticipation, as well as a prototypical blend of size and athleticism to handle playing inside or out in Green Bay’s scheme, the 6-4, 250-pound Edmunds would be an immediate difference-maker while also giving new general manager Brian Gutenkunst flexibility with Matthews’ contract up after 2018.
15. ARIZONA CARDINALS: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: With Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer retiring, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim will be looking for new faces to spark Arizona’s passing game. Mayfield, shorter than ideal and coming from a spread offense that has not consistently resulted in NFL success, is not for everyone. But he is an undeniable playmaker and could be the dramatic shift Keim and the Cardinals are looking for.
16. BALTIMORE RAVENS: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M*: Despite using multiple draft picks and investing in free agents, the Ravens’ receiving corps remains essentially a black hole for production. Teams could be gun shy about selecting a receiver in the first round, given how much last year’s class has struggled, but Kirk has the raw athleticism to become Joe Flacco’s big-play specialist.
17. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State*: Veteran Casey Hayward has proven one of the NFL’s better free agent additions in his two seasons since leaving Green Bay, but his counterpart — 2014 first-round pick Jason Verrett — has struggled with injuries. While lacking prototypical size, Ward possesses the elite footwork and physical nature to handle nickel or outside duties, giving the Chargers options should Verrett’s durability issues continue.
18. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU*: The Seahawks already spent their second- and third-round picks of the 2018 draft, landing veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (Jets) and Duane Brown (Texans) in trades, leaving general manager John Schneider with essentially two choices here — either trade back to recoup picks or address the club’s anemic running game directly. The 5-11, 218-pound Guice possesses the combination of burst, balance through contact and toughness Seattle has lacked since Marshawn Lynch left town.
19. DALLAS COWBOYS: Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan: Injuries and suspensions have robbed the Cowboys of some of their more talented defensive linemen, leaving assistant Rod Marinelli little to work with. The 6-2, 280-pound Hurst may lack ideal size, but his quickness, tenacity and versatility suggest NFL success.
20. DETROIT LIONS: Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State: If the Lions are able to retain free agent Ziggy Ansah — who registered 12 sacks during an injury-shortened 2017 campaign — Detroit might be able to look at addressing the annually disappointing running game. With depth better at running back than edge rusher, however, adding a blue-collar complementary rusher like Hubbard to pair with Ansah might be the wiser choice.
21. BUFFALO BILLS: Arden Key, OLB, LSU*: The Bills finished last among playoff teams with just 27 sacks over the regular season. That won’t sit well with defensive-minded head coach Sean McDermott, who could see the 6-5, 265-pound Key as the perfect edge rusher to unlock Buffalo’s potential.
22. BUFFALO BILLS (from KANSAS CITY CHIEFS): Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville*: Adding a talent like Kelvin Benjamin will surely help, but the Bills may not be finishing addressing a poor passing attack. Jackson plays a similar style as Tyrod Taylor, relying upon his legs as much as his arm or eyes. He is younger, cheaper and has a higher upside, however — characteristics the Bills may consider with two first-round picks this season due to Kansas City’s trade up last year to nab their quarterback of the future, Patrick Mahomes.
23. LOS ANGELES RAMS: Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn*: With top cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner and Nickell Robey-Coleman each in the final year of their contracts, the Rams may need to take a look at the future. Davis possesses the athleticism, size and playmaking ability to contribute immediately.
24. CAROLINA PANTHERS: Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma*: As long as Cam Newton is taking snaps in Carolina, the focus should be on adding massive maulers for the running game. Brown, the prodigal son of the late longtime Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens’ standout of the same name, possesses the girth, power and nasty playing demeanor to project to any of the four exterior roles in the NFL.
25. TENNESSEE TITANS: Will Hernandez, OG, Texas-El Paso: The fact that the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles made the NFC championship game with backup quarterbacks is a testament to their dominance at the line of scrimmage and a model many teams will be looking to duplicate. Plugging in a powerful run blocker like Hernandez on an offensive line already boasting Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin could give Tennessee a similarly unstoppable front.
26. ATLANTA FALCONS: Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford*: With Dontari Poe on a one-year deal, the Falcons are likely to be looking for youth and size along the defensive line this spring. At 6-3, 290 pounds, Phillips is not nearly as big as Poe, but he plays with the instincts, technique and motor that head coach Dan Quinn will appreciate.
27. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Vita Vea, DT, Washington*: The Saints already boast a young and talented defensive line but at this point in the draft, Vea may simply be too gifted to pass up. Vea possesses a combination of size (6-4, 344), strength and athleticism that could earn top 10 consideration, but he remains technically raw. Snap-to-snap consistency is also an issue, which could drop him a bit on draft day.
28. PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State: The frightening spinal injury to star Ryan Shazier could force the Steelers to strongly consider investing an early pick at inside linebacker. Some will criticize Vander Esch as a one-year wonder at Boise State but the same criticism also followed standout rookie T.J. Watt at Wisconsin. Like Watt, Vander Esch has the motor Steelers fans will love, as well as the length, athleticism and playmaking ability to earn a first-round selection.
29. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist*: Selecting a wide receiver in the first round may not sound like a typical Tom Coughlin move but considering that the Jaguars have already invested big dollars in retaining Allen Hurns — and Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee are pending free agents — the Jaguars may have little choice but to consider stocking up at pass-catcher. The 6-3, 218-pound Sutton is the draft’s best at boxing out cornerbacks to win 50-50 balls, scoring 31 touchdowns over the past three seasons.
30. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama*: The Eagles have one of the more complete rosters in the NFL but lack a true intimidator in the back end. Harrison remains better against the run than the pass at this point, but he could be afforded a “redshirt” year with veterans Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod already in place in Philadelphia.
31. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Taven Bryan, DL, Florida*: For all of the success Bill Belichick has enjoyed as coach, his willingness to gamble on upside as a general manager has led to plenty of surprise draft picks. A physical freak whose best football lies ahead of him, Bryan is one of the wildcards of the draft and would make sense for a team lacking difference-makers up front.
32. MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: As long as Mike Zimmer is coaching the team, size and physicality will be a premium for future Vikings. McGlinchey lacks the athleticism to wow scouts during pre-draft workouts, but an old school coach like Zimmer will appreciate McGlinchey’s size (6-7, 312), toughness and consistency.
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.