After Ezekiel Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns en route to earning first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie last year, one line of thinking suggests that there will be an early run on one of the most-hyped running back classes in recent memory. It’s a copycat league, as they say, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey would appear to be pretty tempting for a team hoping to re-create the magic that Dallas captured with 2016’s fourth overall pick.
The problem with trying to emulate the Cowboys is that you have to be built like the Cowboys — and no one else is. Elliott’s value behind the best offensive line in football is an outlier for a position that, with the league’s boom in passing frequency and with the increased prevalence of the running-back-by-committee approach, has gradually been devalued over the past decade. The supply of depth and talent at the position, both in the league and in the pipeline through the draft, exceeds the demand, and that’s been apparent in free agency: Latavius Murray, Danny Woodhead, and Eddie Lacy each took mid- to low-level deals with limited guarantees, and Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and LeGarrette Blount all remain unsigned. There’s a chance this reluctance to invest too much at the position could carry over to the draft.
Teams must ask themselves: Does a two-down back like Fournette — a power runner who’s not going to give you a whole lot in the passing game — warrant a first-round pick? Is it worth taking an early chance on Cook, a proven playmaker with multiple off-field incidents in his past and two surgically repaired shoulders who measured out in the ninth percentile as an athlete at the combine? Can someone afford to take McCaffrey in the first knowing that he’s not likely to be a three-down sustainer between the tackles?
Despite Elliott’s success, the hit rate on first-round running backs is staggeringly low over the past eight years. Take a look at the list since 2009: Melvin Gordon improved on a terrible rookie season to score 10 touchdowns for the Chargers last year, but even though it was a bounce-back performance, he still missed three games and couldn’t get above 4 yards per carry. Todd Gurley was the inverse: After an outstanding rookie season, he was one of the worst high-volume backs in the NFL last year. Going further back, Trent Richardson was an epic bust; David Wilson, Jahvid Best, Beanie Wells, Donald Brown, and Knowshon Moreno are all out of the league; Doug Martin’s had an up-and-down career as he’s struggled through injuries; C.J. Spiller’s a journeyman at this point; and it took Mark Ingram three years of mediocrity to live up to his first-round billing in New Orleans. Meanwhile, after Elliott on 2016’s rushing yards leaderboard, we see Jordan Howard (who was a fifth-round pick), DeMarco Murray (third round), Jay Ajayi (fifth round), Le’Veon Bell (second round), LeSean McCoy (second round), David Johnson (third round), Blount (undrafted), and Devonta Freeman (fourth round).
In our Mock Draft 1.0, both Fournette and Cook came off the board in the first round, but for Version 2.0, the value teams can get at that spot in later rounds means that we don’t see any running backs getting their names called in Round 1. And that’s not the only big change: Last time around, we saw concerns over talent and pro readiness at the quarterback and offensive line positions cause top prospects to fall. In this mock, the desperation teams are feeling for quarterbacks and linemen overrides concerns over unusually weak years at both spots. The big mover is Deshaun Watson — he fell out of the first round in our last version, the result of a ripple effect after every team in the top 10 balked on selecting a quarterback. But in this iteration, the playmaking two-time Heisman finalist doesn’t make it out of the top 5.
With these variables in mind, let’s take a look at how a running-back-free first round might play out.
1. Cleveland Browns: DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
Garrett’s a highly disruptive, versatile, and über-athletic defensive end prospect who can contribute on Gregg Williams’s defense from day one, whether it’s on the weak side on first and second down or inside in nickel looks. While he’s not the slam-dunk pick that the hype might suggest, he comes in with an immediate floor as a starter but with the upside of an All-Pro. His technique is raw and limited, but you can teach him pass-rush moves; you can’t teach the explosiveness he possesses.
2. San Francisco 49ers: DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford
As the 49ers make the switch to a Seahawks-esque 4–3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (a former Pete Carroll assistant), adding a Michael Bennett type of versatile inside-outside pass rusher is a good start. Thomas can align wide in base looks alongside San Francisco defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, then bump inside to rush against guards in obvious passing situations. He saw plenty of action in both areas in Stanford’s scheme, grabbing 10 sacks, 12 hits, and 22 hurries on 394 pass-rush snaps last year for the Cardinal.
3. Chicago Bears: S Jamal Adams, LSU
Chicago needs playmakers in the middle of the field — the Bears surrendered a 95 rating to quarterbacks on passes to the short middle and a 120 rating on passes to the deep middle last season — so the signing of solid nine-year veteran Quintin Demps to a three-year deal shouldn’t stop them from taking one of the best safeties in the draft. Adams has the range and instincts to help clean up coverage in the back end, but comes with the added bonus as a tone-setting enforcer in the box for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. He could play the intimidator role that helped Donte Whitner earn a pair of Pro Bowl appearances in Fangio’s fearsome defenses in San Francisco in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The general belief when Jacksonville hired Doug Marrone to replace Gus Bradley was that it was good news for Blake Bortles, but Marrone knows that his tenure in Jacksonville is tied to finding a top-tier quarterback to build his roster around. After three years, Bortles has yet to show many signs he’s that guy, and last year his struggles weren’t just on the field; they extended to practice and the film room. With Watson, the Jaguars get a player who shines everywhere Bortles does not: The former Clemson Tiger brings a dynamic dual-threat ability as both a passer and a runner, is an incredible sack-avoiding playmaker with outstanding leadership qualities, and a proven gamer who shows up at his best on the biggest stage. Concerns about his arm strength and downfield accuracy caused him to fall behind other quarterbacks in our last mock, but hard-to-ignore intangibles are exactly what Jacksonville’s been missing from its signal-caller.
5. Tennessee Titans (From Los Angeles Rams): DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama
Allen would be a versatile addition to an already-talented Tennessee front, a disruptive force who could play the 3–4 defensive end spot or move inside to rush against guards and centers. The former Crimson Tide defensive lineman notched 11 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 41 hurries last season, tops among all interior defenders. Putting him on the same line as Jurrell Casey would give the Titans the potential to be one of the league’s toughest fronts.
6. New York Jets: OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
Most mocks are projecting the first wave of this underwhelming class of offensive linemen to come off the board in the late teens or early 20s, but after the league gave middling (at best) and injury-prone left tackles like Matt Kalil (five years, $55 million with $31 million guaranteed) and Russell Okung (four years, $53 million with $25 million guaranteed) enormous deals in free agency, an early run on offensive linemen feels imminent. Ramczyk’s lack of experience (just one year starting at Wisconsin) is a red flag, but he’s technically sound in pass protection, with smooth athleticism and an ice-cold demeanor on the field. He allowed just one sack, three hits, and 11 hurries on 348 pass-blocking snaps in 2016, per Pro Football Focus.
7. Los Angeles Chargers: OG Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
Lamp’s projected to move to the guard spot in the pros, and while it might seem high to project an interior lineman at no. 7 to the Chargers, the value he provides new head coach Anthony Lynn would be twofold. First, Philip Rivers is one of the league’s best at stepping up into the pocket to deliver throws from a muddied pocket, but he needs his interior trio to hold its ground at the point of attack to do that. Adding Lamp at either guard spot is an instant upgrade — because of his quick feet and strong hands, he gave up just 31 pressures over 1,620 snaps at Western Kentucky — and would help L.A. improve on its 19th-ranked finish in pressure rate last year. Second, if Lynn wants to get anything close to his Bills’ league-best run game from last year with his new squad in Los Angeles, he’ll need some talent up front clearing the way. Lamp is an athletic mauler capable of executing any of the blocks that Lynn’s exotic run game asks for.
8. Carolina Panthers: WR John Ross, Washington
Cam Newton’s numbers took a nosedive in 2016, and while Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen, and Devin Funchess give Newton plenty of size and length to target in the red zone, their collective lack of quickness in and out of route breaks meant that almost 25 percent of his pass attempts in 2016 were to a receiver who had less than 1 yard of separation, more than any other quarterback in the league. It’s time to get Newton a receiver who can get open underneath, and Ross’s 4.22-second speed in the 40-yard dash means he’s going to get a lot of big cushions from opposing cornerbacks, making him a threat on short slants, hook routes, and quick outs.
9. Cincinnati Bengals: DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Barnett’s 4.88-second 40-yard dash and 31-inch vertical jump from the combine aren’t going to catch a lot of eyes — but his pressure numbers definitely will. He racked up 13 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, and 42 hurries in 2016, per Pro Football Focus; those 75 total pressures ranked fourth in all of college football. Instead of getting it done with pure straight-line speed, Barnett relies more on his ability to bend around the edge of an offensive tackle and finish. The Bengals can go in a lot of directions at this spot, but it’s fun to imagine a defensive line that features Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Barnett making lives miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
10. Buffalo Bills: QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
Buffalo’s recently renegotiated deal with Tyrod Taylor gives the team the ability to cut ties without major cap implications after next season, so taking Trubisky here gives the Bills a line of succession. The former North Carolina passer is inexperienced, with only one year of starts under his belt, but he’s got all the tools teams look for at the quarterback position; his athleticism and mobility, combined with a strong, accurate arm, make the former North Carolina signal-caller a good fit in offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s scheme, which relies heavily on zone running and boot-action throwing.
11. New Orleans Saints: CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
The selection of two offensive linemen and two quarterbacks in the top 10 means that the best cornerback in the draft drops right into New Orleans’s eager hands. With depth issues at the cornerback spot and an obvious goal of finally doing something about their god-awful defense, the Saints’ selection of Lattimore is a no-brainer. He’s a future no. 1 corner who allowed a passer rating of 30.2 on throws to him in coverage last year for the Buckeyes.
12. Cleveland Browns (From Philadelphia Eagles): S Malik Hooker, Ohio State
After picking Garrett at no. 1, the Browns have already added a guy who can provide consistent pressure in forcing opposing quarterbacks to rush their throws. By grabbing Hooker here at no. 12, they’ve found someone who will excel at picking off those rushed throws. The rangy free safety has best-of-class instincts at the position, and he racked up seven picks and four pass breakups last year, regularly appearing to be aware of where the pass was going before the ball was even snapped.
13. Arizona Cardinals: WR Mike Williams, Clemson
Carson Palmer’s effectiveness dipped badly in 2016, and a big part of that was due to Michael Floyd’s ineffectiveness on the outside. Arizona has speed deep with John Brown and J.J. Nelson and a dependable underneath option with Larry Fitzgerald running out of the slot, but the Cardinals missed a big, physical presence on the outside. Williams slots into Floyd’s spot in Bruce Arians’s aggressive passing game as a threat on third downs and in the red zone because of his ability to body up corners and snag throws in traffic. Way too much of Arizona’s offense ran through David Johnson last year, and Williams takes a lot of pressure off of the explosive running back.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (From Minnesota Vikings): LB Reuben Foster, Alabama
The Eagles don’t have a pressing need at middle linebacker — Jordan Hicks is an ascending star at that spot — but Foster’s rare blend of length, range, and ferocious tackling style mean that not only would he provide excellent depth in case of a Hicks injury, but he’s also a potential early starter as a run-and-chase weakside linebacker in Jim Schwartz’s defense. Foster is a force against the run, he can cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield, and as his five sacks last year suggest, he could also be a blitzer in Schwartz’s aggressive scheme.
15. Indianapolis Colts: CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
New Colts GM Chris Ballard has a lot of work to do in fixing a pass defense that gave up a 27th-ranked passer rating of 98.9 to opposing quarterbacks last year. He got the ball rolling by signing pass rushers Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Margus Hunt, and Barkevious Mingo in free agency, but the defensive secondary needs to be addressed. Conley, who gave up an opposing-quarterback passer rating of 13.6 for Ohio State last season, slots in as a year-one starter opposite Vontae Davis.
16. Baltimore Ravens: OT Garett Bolles, Utah
The Ravens struggled in both the passing game (26th per Football Outsiders’ DVOA) and in the rushing attack last year (21st). Losing Ricky Wagner, a three-year starter at right tackle, to the Lions in free agency isn’t going to help. That’s where Bolles comes in; the 6-foot-5 297-pounder played left tackle for Utah, but with “the sweetest feet at the tackle position in this draft,” he could be immediately slot in at right tackle for Baltimore, bookending the Ravens’ first-round pick from last year, Ronnie Stanley.
17. Washington Redskins: CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Washington finished dead last on third-down conversion percentage as a defense last season, allowing opponents to convert first downs on 46.6 percent of their attempts. With Josh Norman locking down the right sideline, opposing passers attacked weaker coverage to the left, so the Redskins need a playmaking corner to pair with Norman to balance out their coverage. Humphrey can function in man or zone schemes, plays the run with physicality, and could earn a starter’s job right out of the gate.
18. Tennessee Titans: TE O.J. Howard, Alabama
As part of Mike Mularkey’s self-styled “exotic smashmouth” scheme, the Titans tied for the league high with 40 percent of their offensive snaps last year featuring two or more tight ends on the field at the same time. Delanie Walker is already a dual threat as a blocker and a reliable target for quarterback Marcus Mariota, but adding Howard would give them a new dimension of speed and versatility. The 6-foot-6 251-pounder is a smooth athlete with explosiveness rarely seen at the position.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Only one team ran more plays out of two-tight-end, two-receiver, one-back sets than the Buccaneers last year, and Engram — a prolific pass-catcher who ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the combine — would pair nicely with 2016 breakout tight end Cameron Brate, who tied for the league lead at the position for touchdowns (eight). Engram has the movement skills and speed to play a Jordan Reed–style role for the Buccaneers, as he’s able to line up around the formation to create and exploit defensive mismatches against slower linebackers or smaller cornerbacks. Along with Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, Engram would make matching up with the Buccaneers a headache.
20. Denver Broncos: LB/DE Haason Reddick, Temple
After losing Danny Trevathan to free agency and Brandon Marshall to injury, Denver’s run defense really suffered in 2016 due to a lack of linebacker depth. Now, with DeMarcus Ware’s retirement, they need help on the outside, too. Grabbing Reddick does both: He’s capable against the run and in coverage, and he was an explosive college pass rusher who grabbed 9.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss last year for the Owls.
21. Detroit Lions: WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan
It’s no secret that the Lions’ most pressing needs lie on the defensive side of the ball, but grabbing Davis here wouldn’t be a pure luxury. Detroit ran 76 percent of it plays last year from “11 personnel” sets (three receivers, one tight end, and one running back), and with the still-unsigned Anquan Boldin’s future up in the air, Detroit needs to add a third playmaking pass catcher to complete a group that already includes Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. Davis would give Jim Bob Cooter’s passing attack a different dimension: At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, he’s still agile as a route runner and explosive as a yards-after-the-catch creator, but he’s got the size and win-at-the-catch-point physicality in the red zone that no one else in this offense possesses.
22. Miami Dolphins: CB Tre’Davious White, LSU
When you play in the same division as Tom Brady, a pass rush helps, but because of Brady’s incredible ability to avoid sacks by getting the ball out of his hands quickly, the capability to match up in coverage is an even bigger factor. That’s why the Dolphins grab White, a playmaker who might be the best man-cover corner in the draft. You can never have enough depth at cornerback, and with his instinctiveness and explosiveness in mirroring receivers in coverage, he can play outside or bump inside to play in the slot.
23. New York Giants: TE David Njoku, Miami
The Giants offense floundered last year, underscoring the need to add playmakers other than Odell Beckham Jr. Acquiring Brandon Marshall is a big first step, but New York needs a big seam-running weapon up the middle too. Njoku’s pretty raw as a blocker but has incredible upside as a downfield pass-catcher: With 35-plus-inch arms on a 6-foot-4 frame, combined with his 37.5-inch vertical jump, you’d be hard pressed to find a guy with a bigger catch radius.
24. Oakland Raiders: CB Kevin King, Washington
King would’ve be a dream target for the late Al Davis: a physical press cornerback with elite size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and speed. It just so happens that current Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie also values those traits. King boosted his stock into the first round with an electric combine performance, running the 40 in 4.43 seconds while adding a 39.5-inch vertical jump, a 6.56-second three-cone, and a 3.89-second short shuttle to put himself in the 99th percentile for NFL corners. He’d challenge David Amerson for the starting job opposite Sean Smith from day one, with the goal of his taking over for Smith in the long term.
25. Houston Texans: QB Deshone Kizer, Notre Dame
The Texans offloaded Brock Osweiler and his terrible contract earlier this month, so now they can start planning for the future with a relatively blank slate. Houston’s moves in the draft last year, especially the selection of speedy wideout Will Fuller in the first round, betrayed Bill O’Brien’s desire to open up the passing game downfield and stress defenses vertically. Kizer has all the arm Houston’s coach needs to execute that style of attack. Plus, he would be taking snaps from his former teammate Nick Martin and throwing deep bombs to his former favorite target at Notre Dame in Fuller. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt that he’d also have DeAndre Hopkins out there, too.
26. Seattle Seahawks: S Budda Baker, Washington
Earl Thomas is the straw that stirs the Seahawks’ drink, and from weeks 1 to 11 last year, opposing quarterbacks throwing to the deep middle registered a passer rating of nine. After Thomas got hurt in Week 11, that rating jumped to 139 the rest of the way out. Seattle needs a backup plan for Thomas — not just in case of injury this year, but also because Thomas has talked about an early retirement on a few occasions — and even if their All-Pro safety stays healthy, Baker is a playmaking ball hawk. He can feature in the slot and in nickel or dime looks for Seattle as a cornerback-safety hybrid similarly to how Arizona deploys Tyrann Mathieu.
27. Kansas City Chiefs: QB Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
Alex Smith has done an admirable job as a game manager for Andy Reid and the Chiefs over the past four seasons, but they’ve still lacked an explosive downfield passing element. Kansas City can get out of its contract with Smith after this season, and in the strong-armed and fearless Mahomes, it has the opportunity to add a quarterback who can cut it loose downfield. The former Texas Tech signal-caller will need some time to refine his skills and learn to play within Reid’s precision timing system, but he’s got the tools to be a top-tier passer in the NFL.
28. Dallas Cowboys: S Obi Melifonwu, UConn
Dallas’s scouting department and front office highly value explosive athleticism (evidenced by their preference for prospects who test well in the SPARQ metric, an eight-input formula that aims to grade a player’s overall athleticism). That’s a big reason why they felt comfortable drafting Byron Jones in 2015 (the top SPARQ corner in his class) and it’s a big reason they’ll have no problem reaching on another impressive SPARQ performer out of UConn in Melifonwu. At 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, he ran the 40 in 4.4 seconds, notched a 44-inch vert, and leapt for an 11-foot-9 broad jump at the combine. After losing defensive backs Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne in free agency, adding the versatile, über-athletic safety (who also took reps at cornerback at the Senior Bowl and his pro day) is just the ticket for Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
29. Green Bay Packers: DL Malik McDowell, Michigan State
At 6-foot-6, 295 pounds, McDowell can slot in next to defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark, giving Green Bay the potential to have one of the most dominant fronts in football. There’s concern that he freelances too much, but the athletic penetrator can play the end position or bump inside to nose tackle in passing situations. Like Clark when he was picked last year, McDowell is still just 20 years old and has plenty of potential to develop. Ted Thompson’s betting on upside.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers: OLB Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
After grabbing 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble in seven games last year, Bud Dupree looks like a future star for the Steelers, but Pittsburgh needs to find a long-term pass rusher to put on the other edge. James Harrison will play part of that role this year, except he’s not getting any younger. McKinley brings one of the most explosive first steps as a pass rusher in this class. He’s big, physical, and plays to the whistle — all attributes that the Steelers like at outside linebacker.
31. Atlanta Falcons: OG Dorian Johnson, Pitt
For a team that was carried to the Super Bowl last year by its elite offense, protecting Matt Ryan remains a top priority. With Chris Chester still mulling retirement, there’s a vacancy at the right guard spot, and the signing of oft-injured veteran Hugh Thornton isn’t exactly a fail-safe backup plan. Johnson hasn’t gotten a ton of publicity in the pre-draft process, but he’s a former highly touted recruit who was a reliable, steady three-year starter at that position for the Panthers. He’s got long arms (35-plus inches), big hands, solid athleticism, and fundamental technique to slot into the starting lineup from day one.
32. New Orleans Saints (From New England Patriots): DE Taco Charlton, Michigan
Charlton has prototypical pass-rushing size at 6-foot-6, 272 pounds, and he notched 10 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss for the Wolverines last year. He’d be a great fit on either side of the line for the Saints and would add a boost to their pass rush capability by lining up opposite Cameron Jordan. He’s capable of playing the weakside end spot on base downs and flipping over to the strong side in nickel groupings.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Philadelphia’s middle linebacker is Mychal Kendricks; it is Jordan Hicks.