We’re currently a few months into the free agency, and the entire landscape of the first round NFL draft has changed as teams have acquired draft picks or given them away in the pursuit of big-name players. While teams are free to trade as much as they want up until the night before the draft, it’s getting close enough to go time that it makes sense to assess the current needs of each team.
Bear in mind that not all of these picks are necessarily obvious. There are a number of factors we’re taking into account here, from the top prospects to the basic needs of each team and even the general personality of the player. Still, there’s a fair bet that at least some of these teams might make the following picks.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – (QB) Jameis Winston
Florida State’s Jameis Winston has been at the top of everyone’s mock drafts for months now, and there’s no reason for that to change. He’s got a great passing game, and he’ll complement the Bucs’ Mike Evans well in this regard. He won the Heisman in 2013 and his bona fide leadership skills will probably place him at the forefront of the team, even in his rookie year. Some might counter that he’s a bit of a liability, known for trash talk as well as more criminal controversies. Unfortunately, this is nothing new to the NFL.
Even if it were, the team that ranked last during the 2014-2015 season should probably be placing their priorities on nabbing a player who can help them climb the rankings in the coming season. They sure as heck don’t need to focus on defense, having filled a few of those gaps during the free agency. That means they still have ample room for an offensive player, and in this case that player should be the top QB prospect in the draft.
2. Tennessee Titans – (QB) Marcus Mariota
The Titans have two major concerns right now: pass rushers, and a new QB to take over after Jake Locker’s retirement. As for which one they’re going to focus on, it’s pretty much a toss-up. That said, Marcus Mariota has established himself as a top prospect during his tenure with the Oregon Ducks, and the Titans would do well to draft him before anyone else gets a chance. He’s got a Heisman under his belt, and he knows how to pass a ball with the best of them. Looking at the facts, Tennessee isn’t in much of a better position than Tampa Bay this year. They need a top QB, and with the probability that Winston will already have been picked, Mariota is their next best choice.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars – (DE) Leonard Williams
The Jags have been busy during the free agency. They no longer have DE Red Bryant, but they’ve already replaced him with Jared Odrick. Their signings this offseason have been relatively even-handed in terms of balancing offense and defense, but it might be best for them to go ahead and keep focusing on defense by drafting DT Leonard Williams and having him play defensive end. The former USC Trojan has what he needs in terms of height and weight to offer the team a great edge in terms of brute force, but he’s also a fairly decent strategic player. In other words, he’s the type of player that head coach Gus Bradley simply lives for.
4. Oakland Raiders – (WR) Amari Cooper
Some have actually suggested that Oakland should draft a QB like Marcus Mariota and replace current QB Derek Carr, but if Winston and Mariota are both taken by the time Oakland gets their shot at the draft, then there’s little chance of them drafting a replacement for a player who can’t stand up to Carr’s merits. In fact, it’s been said for some time that the Raiders should focus on acquiring a new receiver, and most of their biggest deals during the free agency period have neglected this need.
While many of the suggestions to replace Carr might be attributed to his passing game during the 2014-2015 season, anyone suggesting a replacement for him should go back and watch some of those games a second time. He gets the ball where it needs to go. With Alabama’s Amari Cooper on the team, he might finally have a man who’s capable of getting there in time. Cooper has the speed to outrun most CBs and stay on his route, so he might be just what Carr needs to improve the team’s success rate when it comes to passing plays.
5. Washington Redskins – (OLB) Vic Beasley
The Redskins have already done their defensive team a number of favors during the offseason, signing quality players such as DT Terrance Knighton and DT Stephen Paea. They also re-signed OT Tom Compton, but they could use a decent OLB like Clemson’s Vic Beasley. While Dante Fowler is technically a high-ranked prospect, Scot McCloughan (Washington’s general manager) tends to like his players fast. Beasley might easily have a bit more speed than Fowler, and he’ll be able to cover the field no matter where he’s needed most on the play. He’s a heck of a pass rusher, and he can probably get in a few sacks when needed.
6. New York Jets – (WR) Kevin White
Everyone’s saying that the Jets should focus on a talented OLB, and everyone needs to get over it. Sure, just about any team in the world could use a decent pass rusher. But for the Jets right now, it just isn’t a priority. One of the major acquisitions they’ve made during the free agency period has been CB Darrelle Revis. With Antonio Cromartie in the opposite corner, they’ve got pass defense covered. A sack artist wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but a replacement for WR Percy Harvin would be even better.
Kevin White could easily be that replacement. In just two seasons with West Virginia, White managed to triple his yardage. Any player capable of making those sorts of improvements could easily grow to become the top WR in the league within a couple of years. The Jets wouldn’t exactly be kicking themselves if they chose to invest in a player with that kind of talent.
7. Chicago Bears – (DT) Danny Shelton
A lot of people think Chicago’s going to use their draft pick to sign on a new WR, although their recent acquisition of Eddie Royal makes this less of a necessity. However, they could still use a decent nose tackle and they could easily train Danny Shelton for the part. Shelton is massive, but that doesn’t mean he can’t move when he needs to. He could easily become the team’s star rookie this coming year, whether they put him on as NT or find a different role for him within their standard 3-4 formation. Given his astounding mix of size and speed, they really aren’t short of places to put him. The Bears’ coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can work with Shelton to determine his primary strengths before training him to be the defensive player the team needs.
8. Atlanta Falcons – (DE) Randy Gregory
Atlanta’s been focusing strongly on defense during this free agency period. From the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks, they’ve recruited LBs Justin Durant, Brooks Reed and O’Brien Schofield, respectively. They also got DE Adrian Clayborn, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While many would believe this to indicate the possible drafting of an offensive player to even things out, many are predicting that the Falcons will wind up drafting Missouri’s DE Shane Ray.
Of course, this selection is primarily based on the idea that Nebraska’s DE Randy Gregory will already be taken. If he isn’t, then he is a much better choice for the Falcons than Shane Ray. Both players are talented rushers, but Gregory is a little longer and arguably just a little faster. He can also work a 3-4 formation like nobody’s business, providing coverage that Ray just can’t deliver.
9. New York Giants – (SS) Landon Collins
The Giants have had a surprisingly quiet offseason so far, not really signing too many players. If they could use anything right now, however, it just might be a new safety. Landon Collins can give the Giants coverage, which they’re going to need with the number of star RBs who have been traded during the offseason and are going to have something to prove to their new teams. A strong safety like Collins will make the Giants feel a little safer when up against big names like DeMarco Murray, and the two-time SEC Champion has a great deal of experience. He might be lacking in size, but he knows how to play to his strengths and embrace his speed in order to plug the opposing team’s offense as quickly as possible at the top of every play.
10. St. Louis Rams – (OT) Brandon Scherff
The Rams could do a lot with OT Brandon Scherff. He established his talents while playing for Iowa, but his size is self-evident. He’s a bit longer and heavier than second-ranked OT La’el Collins, but he’s got the same sheer strength that the Rams need right now in their right tackle position.
It’s also worth noting that Scherff could easily fill an OG position, something the Rams were rumored to be looking for in Evan Mathis (who now appears likely to wind up with the Eagles). The fact that Scherff has the wit and physicality to play either of two positions currently needed by the Rams makes him a very likely candidate as their top draft pick. They should snatch him up as soon as possible, regardless of which position they’d rather have him play. They can figure out what to do with him once he’s on their roster.
11. Minnesota Vikings – (CB) Trae Waynes
The Vikings are a tough call. While they could certainly be said to have a need as far as guards are concerned, their visit with Michigan State’s CB Trae Waynes makes it plausible that they might opt to select him. He’s the top draft prospect in his position, noted primarily for his speed. He isn’t as long as some coaches might prefer, but his skills might make up for this in the long run.
Some have suggested that Minnesota should be drafting a WR like DeVante Parker, which would certainly go with their recent acquisition of WR Mike Wallace from the Miami Dolphins. However, current head coach Mike Zimmer tends to favor defense, so he might want Waynes to cover the corner along with current CB Xavier Rhodes in order to establish a strong perimeter defense and stop opposing teams from making too many big passing plays.
12. Cleveland Browns – (DT) Malcolm Brown
Texas RB Malcolm Brown is a beast of a player, and he can offer Cleveland a solid interior defense. While early mock drafts had Cleveland selecting a receiver such as Kevin White or DeVante Parker, they just re-signed Marlon Moore and took on WRs Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe. This means they can focus on stopping the offense in its tracks with a massive presence like Malcolm Brown. He may currently be playing RB, but his size and speed are way more suited to a tackle position. No one in their right minds foresees him playing running back this coming season, regardless of which team ultimately drafts him.
13. New Orleans Saints – (DE/OLB) Bud Dupree
Alvin “Bud” Dupree has established himself pretty well while playing for Kentucky. He’s fairly tall, and he may be somewhat lightweight, but this stands to his benefit in terms of his amazing speed. While some think that one of the primary goals that New Orleans should be pursuing right now is finding a QB to eventually replace Drew Brees, it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to settle for a player who can bolster their defense next year.
Dupree has experience playing both OLB and DE, and he even managed to lead the SEC in sacks last year. Putting him on a team that includes DE Cameron Jordan and OLB Junior Galette will not only benefit the team, but will also give Dupree opportunities to learn and grow. The Saints will be able to recover from their terrible last season with a defensive team that is able to stop the ball behind the line of scrimmage and drive the offense back to give them an edge over the competition. They can worry about finding a replacement for Drew Brees once the rest of their team is solid enough to win.
14. Miami Dolphins – (WR) DeVante Parker
Earlier in the year, a number of sports experts thought that Miami might have their eye on defensive players. However, this wouldn’t really serve to fill any major holes. They just signed DT Ndamukong Suh, and spent quite a bit of money on him at that. A number of experts think the Dolphins might pursue CB Trae Waynes if he’s available, but they don’t need him either now that they’ve replaced Cortland Finnegan with Brice McCain. With defense accounted for, the Dolphins are free to spend their time focusing on offense.
They might do this by adding WR DeVante Parker to their roster. The former Louisville receiver is tall, fast, and experienced. Current Miami QB Ryan Tannehill should have little trouble getting the ball to him, and the two might wind up playing some major plays together in order to gain significant yardage in the coming season.
15. San Francisco 49ers – (OLB) Dante Fowler, Jr.
San Francisco’s only major gap was plugged when they replaced RB Frank Gore with Reggie Bush earlier in the month. Since most of their offseason trades have revolved around offense, it seems as if they’re due to take on a few defensive players once the draft rolls around. Fowler could be one of the better options available to them if he’s still around by this point in the draft (he’s got connections with Atlanta’s head coach, so it’s certainly a toss-up). Fowler has a decent balance between weight and speed, which should come in handy when it is time to determine his place in the league. If he’s still available by the time the 49ers have a chance to grab him, they might be crazy not to.
16. Houston Texans – (OT) La’el Collins
Many people are handing this spot to Stanford’s OT Andrus Peat, but if he’s still available than Houston would do best to draft LSU’s OT La’el Collins. He’s got both size and vigor, and he knows how to throw his weight around like a pro. The fact that he’s been playing ball in the South for four years now also wouldn’t hurt his move to Texas. Houston could easily wind up with a player who’s big, energetic, and accustomed to playing home games in their general region. That’s just too good of an opportunity for them to turn down. And considering they’ve gotten a new QB and a handful of defensive players during the free agency period, a tackle like Collins might be right up their alley at the moment.
17. San Diego Chargers – (RB) Todd Gurley
San Diego currently needs a fast, explosive, and relatively experienced RB to replace Ryan Mathews, and Georgia’s Todd Gurley is by far the top candidate. He had over nine hundred rushing yards during the 2014 season, which is major when you consider that he spent a third of the season in suspension and a fair deal of the rest recovering from a torn ACL. He’ll have made a full recovery by the time this next season rolls around, and he’ll almost certainly be ready to move the ball again. If he manages to do for the Chargers what he did for the Bulldogs, then they absolutely would not regret picking him.
18. Kansas City Chiefs – (C) Cameron Erving
No one’s really pegging many of the teams to draft a center this year, but if it’s going to be anyone then it should be Kansas City. The notion held by some that they should draft a pass-catcher like Dorial Green-Beckham to supplement the skills of recently acquired WR Jeremy Maclin is fair, but bear in mind that their offseason hasn’t been nothing but gains. They also lost C Rodney Hudson to the Raiders, and they could use a decent replacement.
Erving should absolutely be that replacement. He knows how to block, and can easily bolster the Chiefs’ defensive line in order to make up for the loss of Rodney Hudson. He’s tall, heavy, and he’s skilled enough to take up pretty much any position on the line and offer Kansas City’s offense the blocking they need.
19. Cleveland Browns – (OT) Andrus Peat
The Cleveland Browns have a second first round draft pick this year, after the trade they made last year that allowed WR Sammy Watkins to go to the Buffalo Bills. That means the Bills won’t be drafting anyone in the first round this year, but they’ve made some decent gains during the free agency (such as WR Percy Harvin), so no one’s necessarily feeling sorry for them.
The Browns, on the other hand, have an opportunity to really supplement their roster. Since they can effectively forget about drafting a receiver this year, they may as well focus on their need for tackles. If they use their first pick on acquiring Malcolm Brown and training him as their new DT, then they might want to go for OT Andrus Peat. He’s one of the tallest OTs up for grabs this year, and he knows how to throw his massive weight around with surprisingly incredible speed. Not only has he got skills, but he should be able to grow a bit while playing with the Browns.
20. Philadelphia Eagles – (CB) Kevin Johnson
Philadelphia’s needed a good corner for a while, and despite their relatively busy offseason, they haven’t plugged this particular hole through free agency just yet. Kevin Johnson is a supremely light player, and he has more than enough agility to stick to his man regardless of speed. While some might prefer a slightly taller CB than Johnson, it’s hard to argue with his five years of experience as a red-shirted senior for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Maybe Johnson isn’t particularly long, but he’s got the knowhow to handle some of the better offenses in the NFC.
21. Cincinnati Bengals – (DT) Arik Armstead
The Bengals have been really cementing their defense during the free agency period, and their hardcore focus on this one specific area indicates that they might continue to sign defensive players during the draft. While Oregon’s DT Arik Armstead may not weight a lot, he’s huge at a height of 6’7 and he’s got the technique to complement a strong defensive formation. If there’s any chance of the Bengals continuing to focus on defense, then Armstead is easily one of the best selections they could make.
22. Pittsburgh Steelers – (OLB) Shaq Thompson
The Steelers lost OLB Jason Worilds to the free agency, and they could definitely use a replacement. While many people believe they will attempt to fill this gap with Bud Dupree, there’s a good chance that Dupree will already be taken. If this is the case, then Shaq Thompson of the Washington Huskies might be their best bet.
Thompson isn’t one of the top draft prospects right now, but neither are most OLBs. Next to Bud Dupree, it’s hard to do much better. He doesn’t have quite the size and strength that might be desired from a player in his position, but what he does have is an extremely aggressive and energetic playing style. He’s agile to boot, which makes him great at getting around the other team’s guards and making the necessary play. He knows how to read a field, how to fake a juke, and ultimately how to get where he’s needed. Some believe that he’ll be drafted as a safety this year due to this figure, but he’s got more experience as OLB and could easily bulk up to make up for the loss of Worilds.
23. Detroit Lions – (DT) Eddie Goldman
Detroit no longer has DTs Nick Fairley or Ndamukong Suh, and their signing of former Saints DT Tyrunn Walker (one of the better players on New Orleans’ defensive team last season) only fills half of the gap that’s been left by the loss of two highly talented players. That means that the Lions are almost required to plug this hole if they want to maintain any sort of quality defensive game in the coming year.
Florida State’s Eddie Goldman might be the answer to their prayers. He isn’t one of the higher-ranked draft prospects in his position, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the best. He’s heavy, he’s broad, and he’s fast to find his man after the snap. He’s best near the point of attack, where he’s able to hold opposing linemen and the line of scrimmage, waiting to pick off their ball carrier as they run up the inside. Goldman isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he doesn’t need to be. Remember, the Lions already have Tyrunn Walker for that, and he’s more than capable. A solid DT on the interior should be their focus right now.
24. Arizona Cardinals – (CB) Marcus Peters
The Cardinals had been planning to re-sign CB Antonio Cromartie, but his contract with the Jets was an upset to their plans. Assuming that they haven’t given up on finding a good corner to bolster their defensive game, Marcus Peters might be one of the few good CBs left in the draft by the time Arizona gets to make their selection. Peters has trained personally with Marshawn Lynch, and his exemplary speed and agility shows it well. He’s been sidelined for his behavior in the past, and a bit more discipline would certainly serve him well, but he ultimately might be the tool that Arizona needs to strengthen their pass coverage this year. While there’s a strong argument that they should be focusing on pass rushers instead, they still need a man to cover the receiver when the rushers don’t get there in time.
25. Carolina Panthers – (OT) Ereck Flowers
Carolina’s re-signed most of their major players, and neither of their major losses during the free agency period have been OTs. Nonetheless, this was a hole that existed long before the offseason started, and it’s still about time for them to fix it. QB Cam Newton needs better protection if he’s going to improve the Panthers’ rankings this season, and a massive player like 6’6, 329-pound Ereck Flowers can give it to him. It doesn’t matter if Newton’s holding the ball on the option or simply trying to spot his WRs on the bullet—his pocket performance would be greatly improved with Flowers on the offensive line.
26. Baltimore Ravens – (WR) Jaelen Strong
There’s been some disagreement amongst the experts regarding Baltimore’s greatest need right now, but a solid replacement for WR Torrey Smith wouldn’t hurt. Strong might not be the fastest WR in the draft, but he’s taller than some of the better CBs being drafted this year and he has excellent body control that allows him to catch pretty much any ball that hits its mark. He can also jump like no one else’s business, usually with a heck of a grip on the ball. He’s caught the ball more than 150 times over the past two years, and he’s likely to keep growing as a player as long as he’s put on a solid team. There’s a chance we’ll see some great replay footage of Strong this year if he’s paired with a QB who chooses to throw him the ball.
27. Dallas Cowboys – (RB) Melvin Gordon
There have been numerous speculations regarding whether or not the Dallas Cowboys will attempt to find a replacement for RB DeMarco Murray in this year’s draft. Since they decided to franchise WR Dez Bryant instead of keeping one of the best running backs in the league, it wouldn’t be the worst decision they could make.
Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is light, and he’s able to explode through the line to make big plays. Not only is he a heck of a runner, but he knows how to catch better than most give him credit for. So you can forget about his 2500 rushing yards last year, or his nearly thirty touchdowns. Focus on his ability to run screens in addition to playing a zone offense. Gordon may not have won the Heisman last year, but he came close, and he’s earned a spot on a team with the ability to run an aggressive offense. The Cowboys should still be kicking themselves over letting go of Murray, but they can at least come close to making up for it with Gordon.
28. Denver Broncos – (OT) T.J. Clemmings
While there was originally a great deal of chatter about the Denver Broncos seeking out a replacement for TE Julius Thomas, they might be set with the addition of Owen Daniels to their roster. There’s also been discussion of finding a replacement for DT Terrance Knighton, but the truth is that they simply have too many holes to fill to make a solid call on who they might pick during the draft.
That said, a solid OT like T.J. Clemmings wouldn’t be the worst addition to their roster. He’s long, he’s heavy, and he could easily end up being one of the best rookie players in his position this year. His broad frame would make him a great addition to the left side of the line, and he can handle edge rushers with incredible finesse.
29. Indianapolis Colts – (WR) Dorial Green-Beckham
The Colts may have signed RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson, but that doesn’t mean they’re done bolstering their offense quite yet. If anything, they might just be getting started. QB Andrew Luck can’t toss the ball to Johnson every time, and he needs another solid man or two on the field who can pick up the ball under pressure. Dorial Green-Beckham is a top prospect this year for a reason. Standing at 6’5, he won’t exactly be struggling to complete any passes that get thrown in his direction.
30. Green Bay Packers – (DT/NT) Jordan Phillips
There are rumors right now that the Packers want B.J. Raji back on their team, but in the event that they can’t get him, they need to be seeking a replacement. Oklahoma’s Jordan Philips is built to play NT, weighing in at 334 and measuring 6’6. They definitely need a solid tackle, especially after their troubles with Marshawn Lynch during last season’s NFC Championship.
There’s also talk of finding a replacement for TE Brandon Bostick, who was cut under arguably unfair circumstances. But really, Green Bay’s main concern should be run defense. Phillips is the NT they need, and they should be praying to every deity imaginable that he hasn’t been snatched up by the time they get to make their first round selection.
31. New Orleans Saints – (TE) Maxx Williams
The Saints better make good use of this draft pick, considering the controversy over trading former TE Jimmy Graham. If they’re going to give one of their best players to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for their first round draft pick, then that pick has to be used to fill the gaping hole they’ve just created in their offense.
Maxx Williams might be the perfect plug to fill that hole. He’s arguably a little green, but he’s still the best TE in the draft right now. He’s got strong reflexes, and he’s about as agile as he can be. He’s got a balanced mix of explosive acceleration and determined pacing, running the ball where it needs to go and reading the field to avoid running into defensive traps. He could be a bit more explosive than he is now, but it seems as if this trait is only going to improve over time. He’s also a little easy to read once opposing teams get to know his style, and he might not get the jump on some defensive teams unless they simply haven’t seen him play before. Even so, his burgeoning abilities show that he could easily become a reputable replacement for Graham with just a bit of training with the Saints. They need a solid TE no matter what, and having one that they can mold to match their playing style wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
32. New England Patriots – (CB) P.J. Williams
The Pats were a pretty difficult call to make until Darrelle Revis signed on with the Jets. Now, their main concern needs to be a new CB. They also let go of CB Brandon Browner. While it wouldn’t hurt to find a replacement for RB Shane Vereen, they’ve made a number of offensive acquisitions during the free agency period, and their signing of three WRs (including solid pass-catcher Kevin Dorsey) indicates that they might be focusing more on their passing game than their running game.
Assuming that finding a new RB isn’t their primary concern right now, the Pats should focus on replacing CB Darrelle Revis. Florida State Seminoles CB P.J. Williams isn’t the best corner in the draft, but he might be the best one left by the time New England gets to make their pick. He’s fast, he’s agile, and he’s able to push through blockers with admirable consistency despite his relatively low weight. He also knows how to deliver big hits once the ball’s been tipped, so there are bound to be a fair number of incompletes with Williams playing defense. His only major downside is that he sometimes gets overzealous, attempting to intercept passes against taller receivers. If the Pats can break him of this habit, he should complement the team fairly well as he strives to fill Revis’ shoes.