It’s nearly impossible to predict how the NFL draft will go down, and that’s especially true this early in the process. The combine gets underway on Tuesday, which means we don’t yet have a ton of information on the players’ athletic profiles, and with the start of free agency weeks away, we don’t have a strong grasp on individual team needs, either. But mock drafts can nonetheless be instructive, even at this time of year—they’re a great way to get to know the players expected to come off the board on Day 1, for instance—but I like them because they operate as an NFL version of a Choose Your Own Adventure; they’re an excellent tool for scenario-building.
The central theme to this draft centers on quarterbacks, a talented group of signal-callers often compared to the fabled Class of 1983, when six passers including John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly came off the board in the first round. This year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see five quarterbacks chosen on Day 1—that’d be the most since 1999, by the way—and there’s a chance that this year’s group matches the Class of ’83.
The sequence in which this much-lauded group of signal-callers comes off the board has the potential to drastically change the complexion of the entire draft. Making things even more interesting is the fact there’s nothing close to a consensus on which quarterback is the top player at his position: Ask five different scouts the order in which USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson should be drafted, you’ll probably get five different answers. Each signal-caller offers unique talents, and each has his own deficiencies—hell, there are a few scouts and analysts who believe Jackson should switch to receiver—but it will be up to quarterback-needy teams including the Browns, Giants, Broncos, Jets, Cardinals, and a few others to decide where each comes off the board.
Things could change over the next few months depending on where free-agent quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, and Sam Bradford end up signing, but in the spirit of “we don’t know shit at this time of year,” let’s take a look at what could happen if there’s a historic early run at the quarterback position.
1. Cleveland Browns: QB Sam Darnold, USC
Stylistically, it’s anybody’s guess as to the type of quarterback that GM John Dorsey and head coach Hue Jackson will target come April. Dorsey came up in the Packers organization watching Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, and in Kansas City, he headed up the personnel department for a team that featured an über-conservative Alex Smith at starter and which traded up in the draft last year to take the ultra-aggressive playmaker Patrick Mahomes. Meanwhile, it’s tough to find a defining characteristic that connects Jackson-coached passers like Joey Harrington, Jason Campbell, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton, A.J. McCarron, Robert Griffin III, DeShone Kizer, and Kevin Hogan—keeping in mind that Jackson and the Browns also famously chose to pass on guys like Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.
My guess right now is that Darnold’s prototypical size, tools, and upside will separate him from the pack. Jackson’s penchant to bench his quarterback for throwing picks (like last year when he yanked rookie Kizer from several games) makes this a risky pairing—Darnold’s main knock is his high turnover numbers in college, where he threw 22 interceptions and lost 14 fumbles in 27 starts. But the hope is that Cleveland can find a bridge quarterback (like McCarron) in free agency to give Darnold time to refine his decision-making process.
2. New York Giants: QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Eli Manning should be the team’s starter for another year or two, and that will give new head coach and renowned quarterback whisperer Pat Shurmur the perfect scenario in which to patiently groom his future franchise building block. Mayfield lacks ideal size—he measured in at 216 pounds and just a shade over 6 feet at the Senior Bowl—and he comes from a spread offense at Oklahoma, but there are few coaches I’d trust more than Shurmur to design a scheme that maximizes Mayfield’s strengths as a passer and out-of-the-pocket innovator. The Heisman Trophy winner is a natural leader, and he can make all the throws an NFL quarterback needs to make with touch, accuracy, and timing. It’d be fun as hell to see him paired with Odell Beckham Jr., too.
3. Indianapolis Colts, DE Bradley Chubb, NC State
Chubb is by far the best edge-rushing prospect in the draft, and that’s a position of need for the Colts. Indy got a pass-rushing boost last year from free-agent signee Jabaal Sheard, who finished with 66 pressures (fifth among 3-4 outside linebackers), but that defense—which finished second-to-last in sacks (26) and 26th in quarterback hits (75)—needs more teeth from its pass rush if it’s going to make a jump forward in 2018. Chubb racked up 10 sacks last year and can provide that pressure from day one. Plus, he’s good against the run, and he finished second among all defenders last year in tackles for a loss (26.0) in 2017.
4. Cleveland Browns (from Texans): RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley’s an electrifying playmaker with explosive speed and a versatile skill set, equally adept carrying the ball between the tackles or lining up on the outside and running routes as a pass catcher. The Browns’ new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, could deploy Barkley in a similar fashion to how he utilized Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh—making him a threat all over the field. Paired with Duke Johnson, another flexible run/pass option, Barkley and Cleveland’s offense would rarely betray their intentions pre-snap.
5. Denver Broncos, QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
This pick would probably shock a lot of people, but Jackson’s experience in Bobby Petrino’s pro-style passing offense at Louisville makes him just as ready to be a day-one starter as any quarterback in this class. His spotty accuracy is a concern—again, no quarterback comes in with a perfect résumé—but he throws a beautiful deep ball and offers incredible escapability and a talent for innovating outside of the play design. That could come in handy in Denver, which has a relatively deficient offensive line. He could flourish in an Elway-and–Gary Kubiak–influenced scheme, heavy on play-action and running the ball, and I’d like to see what he could do in a Bill Musgrave–designed system. Musgrave was recently promoted to offensive coordinator following a stint as the interim coordinator, and he has shown the ability to design offensive schemes that play to quarterbacks’ best strengths. In Oakland, he incorporated spread concepts, run-pass options (some of which he picked up under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia), and plenty of deep shots in helping Derek Carr break out as a passer in 2015 and 2016—and Jackson has all the tools to make that type of offense hum.
Musgrave’s coaching history may give him insight into how to best deploy Jackson’s explosiveness as an open-field runner, as well. He was the quarterbacks coach of the 2006 Falcons team that rushed for 2,939 yards—the most for any team dating back to 1984—and helped turn Michael Vick into a 1,000-yard rusher. That’s certainly not going to be the goal here—Jackson’s going to make his mark as a passer, first—but he’s drawn comparisons to Vick because he has rare talent as a runner, and Musgrave could have a unique perspective on how to harness that special trait.
6. New York Jets, QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
The Jets are likely to take a run at Cousins, but if that doesn’t work out, Rosen would be a good consolation prize. Rosen’s probably the most polished passer in this quarterback class: He’s accurate, aggressive, and throws with anticipation. But he’s also dealt with injuries the past few years, and he comes with question marks about his coachability and leadership. The ideal situation may be to pair a free-agent passer like incumbent starter Josh McCown with this pick, thus giving Rosen time to develop.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, G Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
Both of the Buccaneers’ guard spots are question marks heading into free agency. Even if the team re-signs Kevin Pamphile or Evan Smith to play left guard next year and hangs on to oft-injured right guard J.R. Sweezy, Nelson represents an upgrade at either spot. He’s nasty as a run blocker, technically sound as a pass blocker, and brings a glass-eater tenacity to a line that finished middle of the pack in Football Outsiders run- and pass-blocking last year.
8. Chicago Bears, DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
The Bears need weapons on offense, but they just can’t pass up a versatile talent like Fitzpatrick if he falls to no. 8. Chicago gave up a 94 passer rating on throws to the short middle of the field last year and surrendered a ridiculous 147 passer rating on passes to the deep middle, and Fitzpatrick could help address those vulnerabilities from the get-go. As a hybrid of slot cornerback, deep safety, and nickel linebacker, Fitzpatrick could run with slot receivers and tight ends, patrol the second level as a “robber” defender, or range as a deep safety.
9*. San Francisco 49ers, S Derwin James, Florida State
James is sticky in coverage over the middle of the field, is an effective blitzer, and a tone-setting tackler in the mold of Kam Chancellor—which is exactly how former Seahawks assistant and now–49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh could deploy him. The Niners, who finished last season 28th in pass defense DVOA, may go a different route if they end up re-signing Eric Reid, but even if Reid returns, San Francisco could always use another versatile midlevel defender like James, who could even play as a de facto linebacker in some nickel packages.
10*. Oakland Raiders, LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
The Raiders need help in the middle of their defense whether free-agent linebacker NaVorro Bowman re-signs with the team or not. Edmunds combines rare size and athleticism at the position and could play off the ball on one play and line up on the edge and get after the passer on the next. On the field together with Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, Edmunds would give the Raiders’ new defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, plenty of options with his blitz packages, and the former Hokie defender would add second-level speed and range to a defense that badly needs it.
Note: The 49ers and Raiders will flip a coin this week to decide which picks ninth and 10th.
11. Miami Dolphins, QB Josh Allen, Wyoming
The Dolphins can get out of Ryan Tannehill’s contract after 2018 with minimal cap penalties, so don’t count Miami out of this year’s quarterback sweepstakes. Behind Jackson, Allen might be the most polarizing prospect in this class: There are scouts who look at his prototypical size and elite arm strength and think he’s the second coming of Brett Favre, and there are others who believe his scattershot accuracy will doom him as a pro passer. Head coach Adam Gase’s reputation as a quarterback guru has waned slightly over the past few years, but in this scenario, he’d have a year or two to develop the raw passer out of Wyoming while leaning on Tannehill as the starter in the short term.
12. Cincinnati Bengals, LB Roquan Smith, Georgia
Smith is a little on the small side at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, but he makes up for the lack of size with sideline-to-sideline speed, versatility, and coverage chops—and he’d be a great addition to a Bengals defense that lacks depth at linebacker. Smith would give Cincy the ability to cover backs out of the backfield and track down runs to the outside—and he’s capable of playing multiple positions in Cincy’s second level.
13. Washington Redskins, CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
Like Smith, Ward is a little undersized at 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds, but he’s a highly athletic and fundamentally sound cornerback in coverage—and would be an immediate starter for a team that lacks secondary talent opposite Josh Norman (especially after the team traded away promising corner Kendall Fuller). Ward could play outside or in the slot.
14. Green Bay Packers, CB Josh Jackson, Iowa
The Packers’ pass defense was atrocious in 2017, surrendering a 102.0 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks—better than only the Browns—while giving up 30 passing touchdowns, also second worst. Jackson led the nation in interceptions last season (eight) and broke up 18 other throws, and would pair well with Kevin King, the team’s first selection from last year, in Green Bay’s new-look defense under Mike Pettine.
15. Arizona Cardinals, QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Most scouts would consider this a pretty major reach for the Cardinals, but after the early-round run on Darnold, Mayfield, Rosen, Jackson, and Allen, Arizona may not have the option of waiting until the second round to grab itself a quarterback. Rudolph doesn’t have the arm talent of many of his peers, but has ideal size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), is an athletic runner on zone-read keepers, was excellent in the face of pressure in 2017, and finished the year with a quarterback rating of 112.2 on third downs, second among all passers in the nation per Pro Football Focus. It’s a risk to take Rudolph this high, but Cardinals GM Steve Keim has always been aggressive as a decision-maker—and this pick would give the team a player it could develop into a quarterback.
16. Baltimore Ravens, OT Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
An enormous lineman listed at 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds, Brown is the son of the late Ravens tackle of the same name and would slot right in for Baltimore at right tackle. Brown could provide a mauling presence as the bookend piece to the Ravens offensive line, opposite left tackle Ronnie Stanley. When you take into consideration the expected return of guards Marshall Yanda and Alex Lewis, Baltimore could field an impressive offensive line and hit the ground running again in 2018.
17. Los Angeles Chargers, LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama
Gus Bradley’s defense boasts an impressive pass-rushing front that features Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, a secondary replete with playmakers, and with this pick, they add talent to the intermediate level of the field. Evans is a versatile, physical, and athletic linebacker who could play in the middle or on the outside in L.A.’s defense and provide a boost as a situational blitzer or pass rusher.
18. Seattle Seahawks, DE Marcus Davenport, UT–San Antonio
Davenport is another hotly debated prospect in this draft—some scouts view him as a top-10 talent and others question his middling production against a lower level of competition—and that disparity in opinion somehow makes him the perfect Seahawks pick. Seattle has never been afraid to gamble on high-upside-but-risky pass-rushing prospects like Bruce Irvin, Frank Clark, and Malik McDowell, and they grab another one here. Cliff Avril’s future is in doubt, Sheldon Richardson is a free agent, and Michael Bennett isn’t getting any younger, so Seattle bets on Davenport’s physical potential.
19. Dallas Cowboys, CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
Oliver has top-tier size (6-foot-1, 190), speed, and athleticism (he’s a former decathlete), and he’s just the type of cornerback that the Cowboys’ new passing game coordinator Kris Richard worked with as Seattle’s former defensive coordinator. Dallas has plenty of needs on defense, and Oliver has the potential to step in and start on the outside from day one.
20. Detroit Lions, DE Harold Landry, Boston College
Even if the Lions manage to re-sign free-agent defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, new head coach Matt Patricia is still going to need to add another pass rusher or two for a defense sorely in need of depth and talent on the defensive line. Landry’s numbers dipped in 2017 as he played through an ankle injury (he went from 16.5 sacks in 2016 to just 5.0 in 2017), but his ability to bend around the edge to get to the quarterback should help him contribute early on.
21. Buffalo Bills, DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan
The Bills could end up bringing free-agent defensive tackle Kyle Williams back in 2018 on a short-term deal, but at 34 years old he’s not the future at the position. Sean McDermott needs an interior penetrator on his defensive line, and Hurst fits that bill. Using a quick first step and a violent rip move, the former Wolverine grabbed 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss in 2017 and could play on passing downs early on for the Bills.
22. Buffalo Bills (from Chiefs), C/G James Daniels, Iowa
Eric Wood’s retirement creates a big need for the Bills in the middle of their offensive line, so in keeping to a “build from the trenches” theme, Buffalo goes with the best center in the draft. Quarterback is still a big question mark for the team—maybe they’ll stick with Tyrod Taylor, sign a free agent, or turn to Nathan Peterman—but Daniels gives them the chance to reprise their run-heavy focus in 2018.
23. Los Angeles Rams, CB Mike Hughes, UCF
Hughes is raw, and took a circuitous route through his college career, with stops at North Carolina, Garden City Community College, and, finally, UCF. But he’s physical and athletic on the outside. The Rams started their offseason with a bang by trading for Marcus Peters, but they still need someone to pair him with.
24. Carolina Panthers, WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
The Panthers got Cam Newton a dynamic intermediate pass-catching threat last year in Christian McCaffrey, but the team’s brain trust still needs to add talent to the downfield pass-catching corps. Ridley’s not a prototypical no. 1, but he’s an excellent route runner who knows how to separate downfield and can pick up yards after the catch. He’s the perfect complement to Devin Funchess in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s passing attack, and could be integral in getting Newton’s completion percentage up in 2018.
25. Tennessee Titans, OT Connor Williams, Texas
Titans right tackle Jack Conklin tore his ACL in January, putting his availability for the start of 2018 in doubt, and even if the team re-signs free-agent right guard Josh Kline, it’ll soon have decisions to make on the left side with two-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan hitting a contract year. Williams can come in and start from day one at right tackle, and when Conklin returns, could move inside and play guard should Kline depart.
26. Atlanta Falcons, DT Vita Vea, Washington
The Falcons need to address their 20th-ranked run defense by DVOA, especially with a host of defensive linemen (Dontari Poe, Ahtyba Rubin, Adrian Clayborn, and Courtney Upshaw) all set to hit free agency. Vea boasts rare athleticism at 6-foot-4 and 344 pounds, and would be a great fit on the inside of Atlanta’s line, capable of eating up blocks to keep speedy linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell clean. Vea’s got some pass-rush upside, too, and could play all over Dan Quinn’s line in obvious passing situations.
27. New Orleans Saints, DE Arden Key, LSU
Someone hoping to get the most out of an inconsistent but physically gifted pass rusher is going to take a risk on Key, and the Saints desperately need to add talent to their defensive line opposite Cameron Jordan. Key is a boom-or-bust prospect, but all the size and physical attributes are there for him to emerge as a star.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers, CB Carlton Davis, Auburn
Davis is going to have to learn to play within the confines of the NFL’s pass-interference/illegal-contact rules, but he plays an aggressive, physical brand of football that should fit right in in the AFC North. Pittsburgh has needs at multiple spots on its defense—inside linebacker and safety come to mind—but there’s no such thing as having too many talented playmakers at cornerback. Joe Haden played well in 2017, but he carries an $11.9 million cap hit into next season, calling into question his long-term future with the team. Adding Davis here gives the team options, and depth, at the spot opposite Artie Burns.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars, TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
The Jags have doubled down on Blake Bortles for now, and they have to get him some more weapons in the passing game. Dede Westbrook looked like a star in the making as a rookie, and re-signing Allen Robinson would be a nice boost. Add in a big, athletic, and versatile joker piece like Goedert (6-foot-5, 255 pounds), who could line up all over the formation and create mismatches with smaller defensive players, and it gives Bortles a chance to earn to his $26.5 million-plus in guaranteed cash.
30. Minnesota Vikings, DT Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
Defensive tackle Tom Johnson is a free agent, and even if the Vikings re-sign him for the short term, he’ll be 34 years old by the time the season starts. Adding Payne here adds depth and talent to Minnesota’s top-tier defense: He’s tough, physical, and versatile—typical of Alabama trench players—and stout against the run, with some upside as a subpackage pass rusher.
31. New England Patriots, LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
There are few players generating more buzz right now than Vander Esch, who could, with an impressive combine performance, solidify himself as a late first-rounder. He has all the hallmarks of a Patriots linebacker: capable in coverage, strong against the run, and versatile enough to play multiple spots on the field—with the upside to rush the passer in certain situations. Even with Dont’a Hightower returning to action in 2018, it’s a position of need for Bill Belichick’s squad.
32. Philadelphia Eagles, OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
Eagles VP Howie Roseman could go in any direction here, adding another cornerback or linebacker to his talent-packed defense. But with Jason Peters’s future in doubt, adding a starting-caliber tackle who can play on either side of the line with the 32nd pick looks like a steal.
Correction: Kevin King was the Packers’ first selection of the 2017 draft, but was picked in the second round. An earlier version of this piece referred to him as a first-rounder.