Rock-solid certainties aren’t easy to come by at this time of year, but there sure seems to be more mystery surrounding the top picks in Thursday’s NFL draft than in any other year in recent memory. All the espionage-style subterfuge that teams carry out in the run-up to the big event seems to have worked: Only Cleveland GM John Dorsey knows which quarterback the Browns will select with the first overall pick. No one has any clue what the Giants plan to do at no. 2. And it’s anyone’s guess as to which quarterback the Jets prefer at no. 3; whether the Browns would like to trade back from no. 4 or stick there and pick; or what the hell John Elway plans to do with no. 5.
Still, we mock drafters steadfastly toil on, trying to separate the legitimate-rumor wheat from the team-planted-trickery chaff—parsing press conference transcripts and top-30-visit lists while heeding variables like team needs, draft tendencies, overall positional value, and more. With all those elements in mind, here’s my final look at how I think the first round will play out.
1. Cleveland Browns: QB Sam Darnold, USC
The Browns could go with a dynamic playmaker in Baker Mayfield at this spot or succumb to the scintillating upside of Josh Allen—but I think they’ll choose the most complete signal-caller in the draft. Darnold has the size that teams covet, the arm strength to attack every level of the field, the escapability to get outside the pocket and keep plays alive, and, most important, the ability to throw with anticipation and accuracy, even in the face of pressure. Darnold threw 22 interceptions and lost 14 fumbles over the last two seasons, but at just 20 years old, he’ll have plenty of time to iron out mechanical issues and his decision-making process. And with Tyrod Taylor entrenched as the starter in 2018, the Browns won’t be forced into starting Darnold in Year 1.
2. New York Giants: RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
It’d make a whole lot of sense for the Giants to invest in Eli Manning’s successor and grab Josh Rosen, Mayfield, or Allen, but it’s become impossible to ignore all the reports connecting Barkley to the Giants. All the rumors—combined with the fact New York GM Dave Gettleman took Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey at no. 8 for Carolina this time last year—make it easy to believe that Gettleman thinks that taking a running back with the no. 2 pick gives the Giants the value they need. As he said last week, “I think that the devaluing of the running back is really a myth. If you have a great running back, he immediately makes your quarterback better, your offensive line better, and your passing game [better].” Barkley could give a boost to New York’s anemic run game, sure, but the real value he’d provide would be as a mismatch creator in the team’s passing attack.
3. New York Jets (from Colts): QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
The Jets have been connected to Rosen, Allen, and Mayfield, and in this scenario, they have their pick of the three. I believe that the Jets traded up to the no. 3 spot to land Mayfield: The former Heisman winner posted elite numbers at Oklahoma (119 touchdowns and just 21 picks in three years), performed well under pressure and in the red zone, has a knack for making plays outside of structure, and is a natural on-field leader. At just over 6 feet, Mayfield may be on the short side, but that never mattered for him in college and I doubt it will in the pros.
4. Cleveland Browns (from Texans): DE Bradley Chubb, NC State
The Browns will field plenty of calls from teams looking to trade up to this spot, but I think Dorsey will opt to take a blue-chip player like Chubb. In the NFL, getting pressure on the quarterback is king—and pairing Chubb with last year’s top overall pick, Myles Garrett, would give Cleveland the chance to take a big jump forward on defense. The former Wolfpack star is a tough and physical pass rusher who lived in opponents’ backfields last year, finishing second among all defenders in tackles for a loss (26.0).
5. Denver Broncos: OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
With Rosen and Allen both still on the board, the Broncos have plenty of options. Denver could take a quarterback, trade back and collect a bounty of picks, or stay and take one of the best non-quarterbacks in the draft—and the Broncos choose the latter. Signing Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal over the offseason showed that Denver GM John Elway is in win-now mode—and priority no. 1 is getting better on offense. Nelson is a plug-and-play lineman who would not only provide a boost to the team’s run game, but help give Keenum a clean pocket from which to throw.
6. TRADE: Buffalo Bills (from Colts via Jets): QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
Here’s our first trade: The Bills don’t waste any time moving up to take advantage of Rosen’s mini-slide, giving up the 12th and 22nd picks to land their quarterback of the future. The former UCLA star is the most polished passer in this quarterback class, combining sound footwork with a smooth throwing motion to attack all three levels of the field. He’d compete with A.J. McCarron to start from day one.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: SS Derwin James, Florida State
The Buccaneers defense gave up a league-worst 260.6 passing yards per game last year, and in a division with Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees, upgrading the secondary is a major priority. James would do just that, providing an enforcer’s mentality over the middle of the field while boosting the team’s ability to cover running backs, tight ends, and slot receivers in that area. The former Seminoles star could even be utilized as a situational pass rusher, both as a blitzer up the middle and stand-up rusher off the edge.
8. Chicago Bears: DE Harold Landry, Boston College
The Bears are still lacking in the pass-rush department—something division-rival quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, and Kirk Cousins are sure to exploit. That’s where Landry comes in. The former Boston College star’s numbers fell last year as he played through an ankle injury (he finished with just 5.0 sacks), but the Bears should be more focused on his 2016 numbers (16.5 sacks) and an outstanding combine performance—including a 6.88-second three-cone time that illustrates his explosiveness in the short area. Put Landry out there opposite Leonard Floyd and the Bears could present some problems to opposing passers.
9. San Francisco 49ers: LB Roquan Smith, Georgia
This would be a dream pick for 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who knows firsthand what a rangy, physical coverage backer can do for a defense from his experience coaching Bobby Wagner in Seattle. Smith is undersized at 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds, but he’s got sideline-to-sideline speed to chase down runs to the outside and cover running backs and tight ends over the middle of the field. He’d bring the versatility to play either in the middle or on the weak side.
10. Oakland Raiders: LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
At 253 pounds, Edmunds has the size of an old-school middle linebacker—which should satisfy Jon Gruden’s desire to “throw the game back to 1998”—but he’s got all the range and coverage chops that any modern defender needs. Edmunds is a top-tier athlete at linebacker (he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the combine) and, at just 19 years old, has nearly unlimited upside to develop into a star.
11. Miami Dolphins: QB Josh Allen, Wyoming
Allen falls out of the top 10, but just barely. The former Wyoming signal-caller is worryingly inaccurate, but has a cannon for an arm and above-average mobility, traits that give him the potential to develop into a quality starter. It’s probably best for him to sit and develop his game from the bench early on, though, which is why it makes sense for him to play understudy to Ryan Tannehill for a year or two.
12. TRADE: Indianapolis Colts (from Bills via Bengals): CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
After trading back six spots, the Colts still pick up the best corner in the draft. The ball hawk is sticky in coverage and versatile enough to play on the outside or in the slot. It’s not hard to imagine Ward having the same type of year-one impact for the Colts that former Buckeye Marshon Lattimore had with the Saints last year.
13. Washington Redskins: DT Vita Vea, Washington
There aren’t many human beings on the planet with Vea’s combination of size and athleticism. Dropping him into the middle of the Redskins’ line would not only help the team generate more push from the middle, but could help free up pass rushers Preston Smith, Ryan Kerrigan, and Jonathan Allen to do work on the edge.
14. Green Bay Packers: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
It’s tough to imagine a more ideal pick for the Packers at no. 14. Green Bay’s pass defense—which gave up a 102.0 passer rating and 30 passing touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks last year (both second worst) needs a big infusion of playmaking talent—and Fitzpatrick would be an instant contributor at several spots in the secondary. The versatile athlete could feature interchangeably as a slot cornerback, deep safety, and nickel linebacker, sort of like like a bigger version of Tyrann Mathieu.
15. Arizona Cardinals: CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville
The Cardinals still need a cornerback to pair with Patrick Peterson, and Alexander could be just the man for the job. He has elite speed and quickness, ball skills, and plenty of competitiveness to go head to head with the top pass catchers in the NFC.
16. Baltimore Ravens: OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
The four-year extension the Ravens recently gave to offensive lineman James Hurst shouldn’t serve as a barrier to the team upgrading the right tackle spot, and McGlinchey’s good enough to come in as a day-one starter. With McGlinchey the bookend opposite his former Notre Dame teammate Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore would have the chance to take a jump forward on offense in 2018.
17. Los Angeles Chargers: DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan
Hurst’s heart condition (diagnosed after an irregular EKG) could be a concern to some teams, but assuming the team is comfortable with his medical record, the Chargers could make a big upgrade to an already talent-packed line by choosing Hurst at this spot. With a lightning-quick first step and an effective rip move, Hurst racked up 49 quarterback pressures last year, per Pro Football Focus, the most among all draft-eligible interior linemen. His ability to slice through the interior of an offensive line and force quarterbacks out of the pocket would be a boon to edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Plus, with Corey Liuget suspended for the first four games, this is a need spot for L.A., too.
18: TRADE: New England Patriots (from Seahawks): QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Another trade, and this one’s a doozy: The Patriots give up a pair of picks—their third-rounder, 95th overall, along with a sixth, 198th overall—to move up five spots and select the electric playmaking signal-caller out of Louisville. New England needs to develop a successor to Tom Brady, and Jackson’s ready-made for that role after running Bobby Petrino’s Erhardt pro-style passing offense at Louisville—which features the same verbiage that the Patriots use in their scheme.
19. Dallas Cowboys: WR D.J. Moore, Maryland
After releasing Dez Bryant, the Cowboys need to upgrade their pass-catching corps, and no receiver in this class has more upside than Moore. He’s raw, but he’s big, physical, and excels after the catch—just the type of playmaker who could help Dak Prescott bounce back from a nightmare second half of 2017.
20. Detroit Lions: DE Marcus Davenport, UTSA
Even after placing the franchise tag on Ezekiel Ansah, the Lions desperately need to add more teeth to their pass rush. Davenport needs to refine his technique and bolster his repertoire of pass-rush moves, but he’s a powerfully built playmaker who boasts the athleticism to turn into a dominant edge rusher in the NFL. It also doesn’t hurt that the Lions have all the inside information they need on Davenport’s football character and work ethic, as former UTSA coach Bo Davis is now Detroit’s defensive line coach.
21. Cincinnati Bengals (from Bills): C/G James Daniels, Iowa
The Bengals need help on their interior line, so this pick could come down to whom the team likes the most out of Arkansas’s Frank Ragnow, Ohio State’s Billy Price, or Iowa’s Daniels. I’m going with Daniels, who’s not only an excellent center but also offers positional versatility to play either of the guard spots.
22. TRADE: Indianapolis Colts (from Bills via Kansas City): WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
After grabbing a corner with their first first-round pick, the Colts turn to the offensive side of the ball with their second. Ridley’s lack of explosive athleticism (he tested poorly in the vertical and broad jumps at the combine) is a legitimate concern, but Ridley—who has fittingly drawn comparisons to both Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne—makes up for that deficiency with ultra-crisp routes and a knack for knowing how to get open and then break off chunks of yards after the catch. Colts GM Chris Ballard needs to give Andrew Luck (or Jacoby Brissett) more pass-catching talent down the field, and he does that here with this selection.
23. TRADE: Seattle Seahawks (from Patriots via Rams): DE Josh Sweat, Florida State
The Seahawks are no stranger to perceived “reach” picks, so don’t be surprised if they pull off another Bruce Irvin–esque surprise and take Sweat in the first round. The pass rusher is an elite athlete who tested out in the 95th percentile among NFL edge players by posting a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and a 39.5-inch vertical jump at the combine and later added a 6.95-second three-cone time at his pro day. And with Michael Bennett gone and Cliff Avril’s future with the team still up in the air, Seattle can’t wait until the third round to add to its pass-rush group. Sweat’s a developmental pick (and a devastating knee injury suffered in 2014 may cause some teams to balk), but he’s got huge upside based on his elite athletic traits.
24. Carolina Panthers: CB Josh Jackson, Iowa
The Panthers may look to add to their offensive line or give Cam Newton some support with an offensive skill-position player at this spot, but because they play in a division with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Jameis Winston, their defense is always going to need as much depth and talent at cornerback as possible. Jackson is a ball hawk of the highest order; he grabbed eight picks last year and deflected another 18 passes.
25. Tennessee Titans: LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
After losing Avery Williamson to the Jets in free agency, the Titans have a need at linebacker, and Vander Esch fits the bill. Tennessee reportedly canceled the Boise State product’s top-30 visit in the belief he’d be long gone by the time the Titants pick at no. 25, so this could be a nice surprise for Mike Vrabel and Co. Vander Esch is an instinctive playmaker who’s great against the run (he racked up 141.0 tackles last year—fifth in the country) but has plenty of range to stick with tight ends and running backs in coverage.
26. Atlanta Falcons: DT Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
After losing Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn in free agency, the Falcons must address their defensive line. If Payne falls this far, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to hand in the card for him. He’s tough, physical, and versatile; on a line with Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley, and Vic Beasley, Payne could help make the Falcons a force to deal with for opposing offensive lines.
27. New Orleans Saints: TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Saints pick Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki at this spot instead, but I’m giving Goedert the edge here because of his utility as a blocker in the run game. New Orleans centered its identity on a smashmouth run game last year, and there’s no reason to believe that’ll change in 2018. At 6-foot-5 and 256 pounds, Goedert’s a mismatch threat in the passing game, but he’s got the size and power to seal off a defender on the edge, too—and that gives him the upside as an every-down contributor for the Saints.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama
Ryan Shazier won’t be on the field in 2018, which makes linebacker a huge need for the Steelers. Evans is tough and versatile and could start from day one.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: OG Will Hernandez, UTEP
The Jags have built their offense around a physical rushing attack, and they double down on that old-school tack by taking a bruising road grader here in Hernandez, thus completing their offseason interior line remodel. With last year’s first-rounder Cam Robinson at left tackle, big-ticket free-agent signee Andrew Norwell at left guard, Brandon Linder at center, Hernandez at right guard, and Jermey Parnell (who’s coming off what might’ve been his best season as a pro) at right tackle, Jacksonville would be well equipped to keep running the rock with authority in 2018.
30. Minnesota Vikings: DT Taven Bryan, Florida
Bryan didn’t have the production you’d hope for in a first-round pick (just 5.5 sacks in three seasons), but he does have something every defensive line coach covets: elite first-step explosiveness. With Sheldon Richardson on a one-year deal, the Vikings need to invest in the future at the interior defensive line; Bryan’s a bit of a bull in a china shop as a pass rusher, but he’s got the athletic ability to develop into a productive player.
31. New England Patriots: FS Justin Reid, Stanford
Both Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung will be on the wrong side of 30 when the season starts, so New England needs to add some depth at the safety spot. Reid’s smart, and has position versatility, top-tier athleticism, and special teams experience—all in all, that sounds a lot like a Patriots defender.
32. Philadelphia Eagles: RB Derrius Guice, LSU
The Eagles got the most out of their running back committee in 2017, but it may be hard to pass up a yards creator like Guice if he’s sitting there at no. 32. Guice has drawn comparisons to Marshawn Lynch because of his tackle-breaking prowess, but he’s versatile enough to be a factor in the passing attack, too. Adding Guice to a backfield group that already features Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement just doesn’t seem fair.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Christian McCaffrey was drafted no. 7 overall; he was drafted no. 8 overall.