INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL Scouting Combine is in the books, which means mock draft season is upon us. Here’s a look at my first crack, with the start of free agency looming just days away.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Alabama OT Evan Neal
The Jaguars used the franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson on Tuesday, which fueled obvious speculation they’re going another direction at the top of the NFL draft. And let’s be very clear, that direction is Aidan Hutchinson. Fair enough. Hutchinson is a high-floor guy with elite production and an elite motor who went to the combine and tested like an elite athlete. Hutchinson and Josh Allen would make for a hell of a pass-rushing duo -- kind of important if you want compete in a conference that just added Russell Wilson to the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson. I get it.
But I think it’s important to remember the franchise tag is a one-year bandaid, and one that Robinson got last year too, so it seems far-fetched he would get it again in 2023 because of the escalating costs. And the most important thing for that franchise is to build around quarterback Trevor Lawrence, an undeniable talent who just burned a year of his life navigating the Urban Meyer drama in Jacksonville. I think the odds the Jaguars still draft an offensive tackle -- whether it’s Neal or Ikem Ekwonu -- are still higher than people think.
2. Detroit Lions: Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson
In 2019, I walked away from the combine figuring T.J. Hockenson was the favorite for Detroit. A year later, I walked away knowing Jeff Okudah was the favorite. This year, I walked away from Indianapolis believing Aidan Hutchinson would be the choice if he’s still on the board. And let’s be very frank, he might not still be on the board. Maybe the Jaguars really are bringing back Robinson so they can move on Hutchinson at the top of the draft. But if the Michigan pass rusher is there, I believe he’s the obvious pick over Kayvon Thibodeaux, Kyle Hamilton, Malik Willis and every other name people are tossing around.
This league is all about passers and pass rushers, and the Lions haven’t had a playmaking pass rusher in way, way too long. Short of finding a quarterback -- which I don’t believe they will -- adding a big-time pass rusher should be their top priority. And Hutchinson is the best this class has to offer. He set the Michigan single-season sack record last year (14), racked up 73 total pressures overall and had a killer pass-rush win rate of 25.4%. His motor also never turns off, which is important for a team that is trying to rebuild its culture as well as the roster. That’s why the Lions prized Penei Sewell in the top 10 last year, and it’s why Hutchinson -- a physical player who just never stops comin’ -- makes more sense than, say, Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Fair or not, there are questions about Thibodeaux’s motor and commitment to the game. I think some of those questions are fair, others not. Either way, he didn’t exactly answer those questions by showing up to the combine and saying he would do everything, then withdrawing early anyway because the day was “too long.” Hutchinson, meantime, competed in everything except the bench press. And he proved he’s an elite athlete too, running the three-cone drill faster than everyone except three defensive backs and two receivers, while his 20-yard shuttle was topped by just two defensive backs and one receiver. Freaky stuff from a 6-foot-7, 260-pound defensive end who is known more for his physicality anyway. His Relative Athletic Score ranked 20th out of the 1,389 defensive ends who have come through the combine from 1987-2022. (RAS measures how a player’s size and athletic traits compare to all other players at his position.)
The combine is just one small slice of the evaluation pie, and I think outsiders weigh it more heavily than NFL teams do. But Hutchinson’s performance did silence any festering doubts about him as an athlete, while the tape just screams Dan Campbell. So does the personality. Here’s betting Hutchinson is the pick if he’s there. Which is an awfully big if these days.
3. Houston Texans: Georgia DE Travon Walker
Jonathan Greenard, Jordan Jenkins, Ron’Dell Carter. That’s Houston’s depth on the edge right now. So while Kyle Hamilton is all the rage these days, and some folks are even pushing for him at No. 2, the Texans would be wise to address their pass rush instead. And few players helped themselves more in Indy than Walker, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds, the 3-cone drill in 6.89 seconds and the 20-yard shuttle in 4.32 seconds. Teams will be concerned about the production, but his combination of size, speed and strength is rare. His Relative Athletic Score was 9.99 (out of 10), which ranked third among the 1,389 defensive ends to go through the draft process from 1987-2022. His closest comps: Myles Garrett and Ezekiel Ansah.
4. New York Jets: N.C. State OT Ikem Ekwonu
Similar thinking to Jacksonville. New York already made the huge investment in a young quarterback, who just labored through a difficult rookie season. Go get Zach Wilson some help, before he turns into the next Sam Darnold or Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty or Geno Smith or -- you know what, please just stop making me think about Jets quarterbacks.
5. New York Giants: Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
The Giants continue to rank among the league’s worst pass rushes. In Thibodeaux, they get perhaps the highest-ceiling edge guy in this draft. The tape is inconsistent, hence the brief fall for a guy once reputed as a future No. 1 pick, but the measurables are so far off the charts that Thibodeaux won’t last long. His length and speed would perfectly complement what New York already has in Leonard Williams and Azeez Ojulari too.
6. Carolina Panthers:Mississippi State OT Charles Cross
When you have only one starting offensive lineman under contract, you know you’ve made some bad decisions with your life. The Panthers have been plain their top priority is acquiring more protection for whoever will be under center in 2022. With Ekwonu and Neal off the board, the Panthers take the next-best option.
7. New York Giants (via Bears): Cincinnati CB Sauce Gardner
The Giants are bad, old and somehow still $7 million over the cap. High-priced cornerback James Bradbury is expected to become a cap casualty because of it, which will carve out yet another hole in the Big Apple. Lucky for them, they can have their pick of any cornerback in this draft. They could do a lot worse than Sauce Gardner, who not only has the best nickname in the country, but allowed a lifetime 32.6 passer rating on throws into his coverage area at Cincinnati. That’s worse than if the quarterback would have just spiked the ball into the turf on every play. After measuring 6-foot-3 at the combine, with 33.5-inch arms and a 4.41-second time in the 40-yard dash, Gardner simply isn’t making it out of the top 10.
8. Atlanta Falcons: Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton
I think Arthur Smith would like to replace Matt Ryan, who has been meh for a while now and turns 37 this offseason. But Hamilton is a top-five talent and Day 1 impact player. Hard to turn down that kind of value, even if he defies positional norms. The Falcons know that as well as anybody. They just spent the fourth overall pick on a tight end last offseason, and hey, that Kyle Pitts fella looks pretty all right.
9. Seattle Seahawks (via Broncos): Liberty QB Malik Willis
Seattle just shipped Russell Wilson to Denver in the biggest blockbuster trade since the Lions sent Matthew Stafford to go win a Super Bowl in Los Angeles. And I hate the deal for them, because no matter what they got in return, they now don’t have a quarterback heading into a pretty bad year to need a quarterback. Roughly 10 teams still need one, and hate to break it to you, but there are barely 10 good quarterbacks on the planet. A lot of teams are going to be hurting for quarterbacks for the foreseeable, and Seattle just volunteered to join that mix. Interesting! Willis runs faster and throws harder than anyone else in this class, so here’s betting Seattle opts for him, even if he will need some time to sit behind Drew Lock.
10. New York Jets (via Seahawks): Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson
New York spent the second overall pick on Zach Wilson last year, then watched him post the worst passer rating in the league. Which isn’t alarming -- not yet anyway -- because almost every quarterback struggles when he has to run between the white lines on Day 1. Even Peyton Manning threw a league-high 28 picks as a rookie, and he turned out pretty alright. But the Colts also invested heavily in his success,, and now it’s time for New York to do the same with Wilson. And perhaps no one is better at separating with or without the ball in his hands in this draft than Garrett Wilson.
11. Washington Commanders: Pitt QB Kenny Pickett
GM Martin Mayhew -- yes, that Martin Mayhew -- tried to trade for Matthew Stafford last year, but struck out. He tried to trade for Russell Wilson this year, but struck out. Maybe he’ll take another swing at trading for a veteran quarterback, or perhaps he’ll dip his toes into the free-agent pool next week. But if he strikes out once more, Mayhew may have no choice but to wade into the thin quarterback draft class.
12. Minnesota Vikings: LSU CB Derek Stingley
Smart teams avoid focusing too much on need this highly in the draft, but it sure is nice when need matches up with value. Stingley might be the most physically dominating cornerback in this class, but has a lot of work to do to prove to teams he’s still the same guy who picked off six passes as a true freshman in 2019.
13. Cleveland Browns: Arkansas WR Treylon Burks
Baker Mayfield is approaching sink-or-swim territory in Cleveland. And after the Odell Beckham thing didn’t work out, he could use some major help at receiver. In Burks, he gets a big, physical playmaker who can line up all over the field, even contribute on special teams, then go hunt down dinner with his XXXXL-sized hands. What can’t that man do?
14. Baltimore Ravens: Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning
The Ravens have a thing for big, nasty offensive linemen, and Penning is 6-feet-7, 325 pounds worth of nasty offensive lineman. He allowed just one sack last season, and his run-blocking grade checked in at a cool 99.9 according to ProFootballFocus. That’s higher than any other player in the PFF era. Of course, it also came against FCS competition. But Penning acquitted himself well during Senior Bowl week, and could go even higher than this if the board breaks another way. Baltimore would be lucky to have him at 14.
15. Philadelphia Eagles: Florida State DE Jermaine Johnson
Eagles boss Howie Roseman has said he needs help on the edge, and he’ll find excellent value in Johnson. The edge rusher transferred from community college to Georgia, then on to Florida State when he couldn’t see the field for the Bulldogs. It proved to be a wise move, because Johnson went on to lead the ACC in tackles for loss (18.0) and sacks (12.0) in his lone season with the Seminoles. Then he rolled into the Senior Bowl and was so devastating that he dropped out halfway through the practice week because there was nothing left to prove. “The obvious is the obvious,” Lions outside linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said. “He’s a pretty damn good edge rusher.”
16. Philadelphia Eagles (via Dolphins): Washington CB Trent McDuffie
McDuffie is the smallest of the top three cornerbacks in this class, but has a lot of polish to his game too. He allowed the lowest completion percentage (44%) and fewest yards per coverage snap (0.39) in the country last year, and finished with the No. 1 coverage grade overall according to ProFootballFocus. The position is tough on rookies, but McDuffie should have a good shot to start right away opposite Darius Slay. Throw in the pass rusher they just got at 15, and Philly’s defense got a whole lot better in the last 15 minutes.
17. Los Angeles Chargers: Georgia DT Jordan Davis
Davis delivered a combine performance for the ages, famously measuring in taller than Rob Gronkowski (6-foot-6) and heavier than Jason Peters (341 pounds), while running the 40-yard dash faster than Patrick Mahomes (4.78 seconds) with a better split than Jarvis Landry (1.73 seconds). I realize the word “freak” gets tossed around a lot this time of year, and I’m guilty of it too, but there is no box for this guy. You have to be mindful of recency bias coming out of the combine -- again, it’s just one small piece of the evaluation pie, and people outside the league usually weigh it more heavily than folks inside it -- but Davis is the unique case where he really did help himself. And he’s a perfect scheme fit for what Brandon Staley is doing in L.A.
18. New Orleans Saints: Ohio State WR Chris Olave
They’re going to need a tackle if Terron Armstead leaves in free agency, but receiver is a must-have too, even with Michael Thomas restructuring his contract this offseason. Those guys on the same field would give defenses fits, which is what good offensive football is all about -- creating mismatches.
19. Philadelphia Eagles: Iowa IOL Tyler Linderbaum
Philadelphia already made some long-overdue investments in its defense. With another pick inside the top 20, it has the luxury of also addressing the offensive front with perhaps the most pro-ready, high-floor lineman in this draft. Linderbaum might not sell tickets, but he’ll keep Jalen Hurts alive.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ole Miss QB Matt Corral
The last time QB3 fell this far was 2014, when Blake Bortles went third overall, Johnny Manziel went 22nd overall and Teddy Bridgewater went 32nd overall. Oof. That’s why you have to be careful about reaching for a quarterback. But if Pittsburgh doesn’t grab a seat on the QB carousel this offseason, or move up for one in the draft, it might not have another choice. Corral would at least benefit from a strong supporting cast in Pittsburgh.
21. New England Patriots: Utah LB Devin Lloyd
The Patriots need someone to fill the Dont’a Hightower role in their defense. At 6-foot-3 and 237 pounds, Lloyd is the closest thing to Dont’a Hightower in this draft.Let’s not overthink this one.
22. Las Vegas Raiders: Alabama WR Jameson Williams
Williams was probably headed for a top-10 pick until he blew out his ACL in the national championship game. His loss is the Raiders’ gain, as their pursuit of a playmaker for Derek Carr ends with perhaps the fastest receiver in this draft. Just ask Williams, because he’ll tell you. “I just know nobody can run with me,” he said while standing on one good knee at the combine.
23. Arizona Cardinals: Michigan DE David Ojabo
If the Cardinals don’t improve their pass rush in free agency, they’re going to need help in the draft. Ojabo is one of the most physically gifted edge rushers in this class, although might need some time to gain experience and develop a deeper bag of tricks at the next level. Lucky for him, he’ll have one of the best ever to help him in J.J. Watt.
24. Dallas Cowboys: Clemson CB Andrew Booth
Trevon Diggs has emerged as one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, but the rest of Dallas’ secondary is suspect. Booth has the size and speed to line up in man coverage, plus playmaking ability. He finished with more interceptions (three) than touchdowns allowed (two) in his career at Clemson.
25. Buffalo Bills: Georgia DT Devonte Wyatt
Wyatt is a 310-pound defensive tackle who really impressed teams at the Senior Bowl. Line up that guy next to Ed Oliver, and Buffalo’s linebackers might never stop running.
26. Tennessee Titans: Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann
Raimann grew up playing the other football in Austria. Then he got bored, saw some kids throwing around an oblong ball in the park one day, realized you got to hit people too, and the rest is history. Raimann enrolled in a student exchange program so he could play the game in the U.S., wound up at a tiny high school in Delton, Michigan, then went to Central Michigan as a tight end before ultimately moving to offensive tackle because of injuries at that position. And two years later, the man is a first-round NFL prospect. Quite the journey.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: USC WR Drake London
Like Jameson Williams, London is a top-10 prospect who likely will fall because of a season-ending injury. And if London falls to 32, boy it would be tough to pass up the opportunity to pair him with Amon-Ra St. Brown again in Detroit. But that dream dies here, as Tampa tries to do whatever it can to navigate the post-Tom Brady world.
28. Green Bay Packers: Minnesota DE Boye Mafe
Za’Darius Smith could be on his way out in Green Bay, while Preston Smith’s long-term future remains unsettled. And the Packers aren’t going to have a lot of resources to throw at that defensive front either, after opening up the vault for Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. Expect them to address the position with this pick. Mafe generated 42 quarterback pressures and seven sacks last season.
29. Miami Dolphins (via 49ers): Purdue DE George Karlaftis
Karlaftis might not be a big sack guy at the next level, but he’s the sort of physical defensive end that would pair well with the speed of Jaelan Phillips. Karlaftis generated 50 quarterback pressures twice at Purdue.
30. Kansas City Chiefs: North Dakota State WR Christian Watson
Watson is one of my draft crushes, a 6-foot-4 wideout who ran a top-five 40-yard dash in the fastest 40-yard dash in the history of wide receivers at the combine. He also broad jumped further than everyone else in Indianapolis, further cementing his place as one of the most explosive athletes in this draft. Yes, the level of competition is a thing Kansas City and everyone else is going to have to work out in the evaluation. But Watson solidified his place in the first round by showing up to the Senior Bowl and dominating everyone who tried to line up across from him. He was named the best receiver of the week, and would be an obvious target for the Lions if he were to fall to 32 or 34.
31. Cincinnati Bengals: Texas A&M G Kenyon Green
The Bengals have to invest in their offensive line before Joe Burrow gets killed. Green would improve that front at multiple positions, although probably would slot in at guard immediately.
32. Detroit Lions: Georgia LB Nakobe Dean
You can’t get the Lions to shut up about their interest in wide receivers these days. They want not just one, but two or perhaps even three. And that won’t change even after inking Josh Reynolds to a two-year, $12 million deal this week. To that end, I gave Georgia wideout George Pickens strong consideration for them here because of his extraordinary speed and catch radius, not to mention he would block his own mother if she were lined up across from him.
But in the end, I couldn’t justify passing on one of the best playmaking linebackers in the country, especially with another pick lurking just two spots later and a bunch of really good receivers still on the board. Maybe I’ve just watched too much Lions football over the last decade, but it has been a long time -- a very, very long time -- since they had a playmaker at linebacker. No offense to Derrick Barnes, but I just don’t think he’s it either. And given the opportunity to add someone like Dean, a speedster who just led the best, most athletic defense in the country in tackles for loss (10.5) -- and doing so after they already added the top edge rusher in the draft -- well, that would transform a Lions defense that was trending up anyway under coordinator Aaron Glenn. Give Glenn new playmakers at the first and second level, plus whatever receiver they like at the top of the second round, and I think the Lions would be in good shape to compete for a wild-card spot in 2022.
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