As the calendar turns to April this week, it is time to take stock of the fact that the 2017 NFL Draft is a little more than four weeks away.
Before free agency opened, Jason Hirschhorn posted a first-round mock that highlighted some team needs and players that would fit nicely into those roles. Now that most of the key free agents have signed new deals -- some staying where they are, many more relocating to new franchises (and Tony Romo still in limbo) -- the draft needs have changed for many teams.
There are many differences here between pre- and post-free agency, sometimes because of players who left or arrived, sometimes because of personal preferences, but you'll also see how quickly the dominoes change when just one falls left instead of right. One thing is for sure: This 2017 rookie class is a seriously talented group.
No. 1, Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
It's an easy call. The 2017 Draft really starts at No. 2 because Garrett is the best non-quarterback prospect since Julius Peppers in 2003 and he might be even better than that. Without a solid quarterback prospect, the Browns can take a player who should have the same type of impact on defense that J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, and Joey Bosa do, and wait on a signal-caller prospect until later in the draft. No movement, no surprises --Garrett is going to Cleveland.
No. 2, San Francisco 49ers: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State
The 49ers can go in a bunch of different directions here, which is why their best bet might ultimately be to trade down. They might also really like Mitchell Trubisky or Deshaun Watson and decide not to wait a year for Kirk Cousins, knowing that marriage may never happen. However, since none of the QB prospects are especially convincing this year, new GM John Lynch can anchor his defense with an elite player at his favorite position: safety. Hooker is recovering from multiple surgeries right now, but San Francisco is not going to be very concerned with 2017 results anyway.
No. 3, Chicago Bears: Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Thomas may go a pick higher than this, but if he doesn't there are plenty of dots to connect between him and the Bears. Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was the defensive coordinator at Stanford in 2010 when David Shaw, now the head coach, was offensive coordinator. The Bears have a huge need for a player like Thomas on the defensive line and since Chicago has settled on Mike Glennon for now, they can wait on a quarterback.
No. 4, Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The Jaguars offense has not been top 10 since 2007, Fred Taylor's last healthy season in the league. Fournette isn't just a better prospect than Taylor, the ninth overall pick in 1998, he's one of the best running back prospects of the modern era. We saw Ezekiel Elliott's selection at No. 4 last year pay off for the Dallas Cowboys, and I expect a team to try and emulate that with Fournette. Jacksonville's defense is now littered with talent but a viable threat at running back will balance the offense and could even make Blake Bortles look kinda good next season because teams will have no choice but to gameplan for Fournette.
No. 5, Tennessee Titans (from L.A. Rams): John Ross, WR, Washington
It may seem high for a receiver, especially one who weighs 188 pounds, but Ross is not Tavon Austin. He's legitimately one of the most exciting weapons to enter the NFL in years. Consider that Austin ran a 4.34 at 174 pounds and Ross just beat that by .12 seconds. Because Tennessee knows they will be picking again shortly, the Titans can try and make a splash here while picking from the deep pool of corners, safeties and linebackers later on. Marcus Mariota-to-Ross would become one of the more prolific duos in the league.
No. 6, New York Jets: Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Not that Josh McCown would preclude any team from drafting a quarterback, but the Jets can take one more year to find out if Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty are absolutely anything of note. Todd Bowles gets a versatile premier safety to pair with Calvin Pryor and New York can hope they have a top-3 defense next season … which they might.
No. 7, Los Angeles Chargers: Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama
This would be considered a bit of a "fall" for Allen but I think it's only justified because of how talented the players already off of the board are. The top 12-15 players in this class are exceptional, while the next 30-40 after that are very close in talent. With Hooker and Adams off the board, L.A. can put another great lineman next to Joey Bosa to form an AFC West powerhouse that competes with some of the defensive combos in Denver, Kansas City and Oakland.
No. 8, Carolina Panthers: Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State
I think everyone in Carolina is happy with the performances of 2016 rookie corners Darryl Worley and James Bradberry, but I don't think it's enough to warrant passing on a player like Lattimore, if he's available. The Panthers felt that Matt Kalil was worth a big contract, so left tackle is not a need in their eyes anymore. Peppers is back, Kawann Short got the franchise tag, there may not be a running back or receiver worth taking here. They could go for someone like Corey Davis or Mike Williams, but is that more true to their identity than a great defensive player would be? I say you draft Lattimore and let the cards fall as they will to see who is starting where next season.
No. 9, Cincinnati Bengals: Garett Bolles, OT, Utah
Though Adam Schefter didn't even have Bolles in the first round in his latest mock, I think that evaluation is more off the mark than anything else being rumored or expected at the moment. Bolles was the best tackle in college football last season, that was evident by October, and then he went to Indianapolis and had one of the best combine performances by an offensive lineman … ever. The Bengals lost Andrew Whitworth in free agency and though they have a number of notable players at the position, like 2015 first rounder Cedric Ogbuehi, 2015 second rounder Jake Fisher, Andre Smith and Eric Winston, none are of the caliber of Bolles. He could start at right or left tackle on day one and by 2018, would be the likely starter on the left side, and could soon be one of the best in the NFL.
No. 10, Buffalo Bills: Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
By coming to a new agreement with Tyrod Taylor that keeps him in Buffalo, the Bills can forego a "need" at quarterback for a year, at least. However, will they regret taking this receiver instead of someone like Mike Williams, as I'm sure some Buffalo fans do with the selection of Sammy Watkins instead of Odell Beckham or Mike Evans in 2014. (Watkins is a great player but not only has he fallen behind those two in terms of health and production, but the Bills traded up for him.) Pairing Davis with Watkins, Buffalo would have a pair of significant receiving threats alongside running back LeSean McCoy, giving Taylor a nice supporting cast and new head coach Sean McDermott some exciting opportunities with which to work.
No. 11, New Orleans Saints: Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama
Sidney Jones would have been a great pick prior to his Achilles tear at Washington's pro day, but unfortunately that injury will have him falling out of the first round, in all likelihood. Instead, the Saints can do perhaps one of the best things they've ever done for their defense and draft an elite middle linebacker prospect in Foster. Despite being sent home from the Combine for an argument with training staff, Foster should remain one of the top prospects in this draft. New Orleans has been re-building their defense for a while, but what it might lack is a player with exceptional leadership and swagger.
No. 12, Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia Eagles): Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
This would be an incredibly fortunate situation for the Browns, as you could make a good argument that Watson is at least as good of a QB prospect as Carson Wentz was a year ago when they traded down with Philly and nabbed this extra first round pick. I also don't think it's unreasonable to not see any QBs in the top 10 and that Watson could be the first one off the board here at 12. He is being a little underrated, in my opinion, because Watson is an athletic marvel, a national champion, won a ton of games in college, was durable even though he tore his ACL coming out of high school, and his stats were off the charts. Watson's weaknesses may be accuracy and throwing some mind-boggling picks, but if you're getting a QB who has that many positive attributes at pick No. 12, you're getting a steal. Cleveland can give him at least a year to chill behind Cody Kessler (maybe they bring in a vet or keep Brock Osweiler too) and learn the offense, but even if they don't, the Browns have built a top-five offensive line with which to protect him and let him learn on the job. This is a solid get for Cleveland if they can make it happen -- and there's a chance they trade up into the top 10 again just to make sure that it does.
No. 13, Arizona Cardinals: Haason Reddick, LB, Temple
If you told me that GM Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians were more concerned with the long-term than the short-term, than I could see them taking Trubisky here to succeed Carson Palmer in a year. However, I don't see the Cardinals going in that direction. It seems like since this could be Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald's last season, they want to put the best product on the field possible. The losses of Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, Kevin Minter and Marcus Cooper could make the defense weaker, and the additions of Antoine Bethea and Karlos Dansby are really underwhelming. Reddick has been shooting up draft boards all year and his incredible performance at the Combine should solidify him as a top-20 pick. Keim's picks of players like Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon fall in line with him taking a player like Reddick.
No. 14, Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota Vikings): Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State
The additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith should take a wide receiver off of Philly's first round draft board (though Williams still would not be shocking here), allowing them to focus on running back, linebacker, corner and safety. The best player available in that regard is probably Conley, Lattimore's secondary mate for the Buckeyes. Conley has great length and had an excellent 6.68 in the three-cone drill at the Combine, he'd be a significant upgrade for the Eagles, who are set to start some combination of Jalen Mills, Ron Brooks, Dwayne Gratz and CJ Smith.
No. 15, Indianapolis Colts: Jabrill Peppers, S/LB, Michigan
I almost went with Cam Robinson or Ryan Ramczyk, but decided that new GM Chris Ballard will instead try to build Indy's defense in a similar way that his former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, did with theirs: by taking exceptional college defensive players early and believing they'll elevate teammates, do what's best for the team, make the franchise both exciting and feared. Peppers is perhaps the most divisive prospect in the class, but nobody is going to argue that he wasn't one of the best players in the nation for the Wolverines last season, finishing fifth in Heisman voting. For the Colts, a team that has needs all over the defense, he could play anywhere and be an upgrade; stick him at safety, stick him at linebacker, or don't even give him an official position. Indianapolis was 30th in yards allowed in 2016 -- Peppers would at least help get the Colts out of the cellar there.
No. 16, Baltimore Ravens: Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Since the Ravens missed out on all the free agent receivers and lost Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken, it's just too risky to pass on a player like Williams. They could still get a great running back or a good cornerback with their second-round selection. This move would give Joe Flacco a trio of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, and Williams next season. Is that elite?
No. 17, Washington: Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
If you want a good sleeper here, why not Trubisky? Well, I don't see a reason to switch from the versatile Cunningham. Other options include Jarrad Davis, Taco Charlton and Budda Baker.
No. 18, Tennessee Titans: Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
You could have argued Humphrey at five, but in this case the Titans could get both an explosive wide receiver and a very good corner in the same year. Humphrey can work his way up the ladder while learning from Jason McCourty and the newly-signed Logan Ryan.
No. 19, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
This re-pairs Cook with Jameis Winston, his teammate with the Seminoles in 2014, while planning for a future without the suspended, inconsistent Doug Martin. If Cook is gone before 19, then Alabama tight end O.J. Howard would be an excellent choice.
No. 20, Denver Broncos: Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
First round quarterbacks in back-to-back years? With John Elway as the GM, why not? It's a position where that is totally justifiable, and if the board fell this way, it would not be hard to envision a world where the Broncos have a three-way competition for the starting job and then attempt to trade either Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian for a 2018 second or third round pick. Trubisky is too good of a prospect to let slide by Denver, but that's also why this would be a good area to suspect a trade between certain teams at the top of the second round and bottom of the first.
No. 21, Detroit Lions: Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
I like the idea of Christian McCaffrey here too, but a bigger need is at outside linebacker, where Davis is being undervalued by many analysts at the moment. Plug Davis into DeAndre Levy's old spot and I don't think the Lions will be disappointed.
No. 22, Miami Dolphins: Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
The addition of Julius Thomas pushes down the need of Howard here, so the Dolphins can instead focus on the depth and improvement of the defensive line. Most have Charlton going in the top 12, so this is definitely a slide for him and a must for Miami if he went this late. If Charlton falls, a team could also be inclined to trade up for him. Some see Charlton as inconsistent and overrated, but he's got great size, athleticism and has been compared to Chandler Jones.
No. 23, New York Giants: Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin
There are at least six players the Giants would love to add here, McCaffrey and Howard surely among them, but they can't pass up a tackle while Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart are still set to be their starters. New York didn't make a splash in free agency at the position after their 2016 shopping spree on defense, so Ramczyk or Cam Robinson have to be the pick, you'd think. Forrest Lamp could also be discussed here.
No. 24, Oakland Raiders: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
They've moved on from Latavius Murray, they could still add Adrian Peterson, but no move would preclude them from drafting a running back early in the 2017 draft. McCaffrey wouldn't have to move far to play for the Raiders (that is until they're in Las Vegas) and he is perhaps the most versatile and exciting back in the class. Derek Carr-Amari Cooper-Christian McCaffrey: That's as exciting of a young trio as there is in the league. The Raiders added Jared Cook, lessening their need for Howard or David Njoku here. Some great players have fallen in this draft so far.
No. 25, Houston Texans: Budda Baker, S, Washington
If the board fell this way, I'd expect the Texans to try and move into the top 20 for Trubisky. Given that we aren't doing trades in this draft though, I don't see them making a move for Pat Mahomes or Deshone Kizer unless they really have fallen for one of those players. Forcing a starter at quarterback is what got them into trouble with Osweiler, after all. Baker is an incredible get at 25 and he'd give their defense another potential elite player alongside Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. They could still find themselves with Tony Romo in the end.
No. 26, Seattle Seahawks: Kevin King, CB, Washington
Bolles would be a dream pick for Seattle, but as noted earlier, I think he's gone way before this. I'm not sold on Cam Robinson or any other offensive line prospect who would be available here, except for maybe Lamp who may not be able to fill their biggest need, which is at tackle. Obi Melifonwu is someone who I think is tough to pass up on here, as I believe the Seahawks are really falling for him as a prospect, but King fits their athletic/size profile to a tee at corner, which is a much bigger need at the moment. King had a top-five combine performance this year and ultimately goes somewhere in the latter half of the first round. In this scenario, he doesn't even have to move. (Though he may want to upgrade to a nice condo in the area.)
No. 27, Kansas City Chiefs: Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU
With White available, a better prospect than Tabor, the Chiefs get an upgrade at corner and an excellent young player to pair with Marcus Peters. White was well-respected with the Tigers, a team leader, and fits with the atmosphere that Kansas City has built on their defense. If Cook or McCaffrey falls this far, that might fill a greater need, but they could still target a good player like Alvin Kamara, later on.
No. 28, Dallas Cowboys: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Howard is good enough to go in the top 10, some will say top six, so perhaps only in a situation like this will the Cowboys choose a tight end over a prospect on defense. Jason Witten turning 35 in May and, worst-case scenario, Howard gives them more exciting options with two-TE sets. This would be an easy move for Dallas and Dak Prescott would have an even more stout supporting cast in 2017; Witten has caught just six touchdowns over the last two seasons.
No. 29, Green Bay Packers: T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin
I love the idea of the Packers selecting Watt and I think he's being undervalued because people just assume he can't be as good as his brother, J.J. Those expectations are far too high to be reasonable, and T.J. can still be one of the very best defensive players in the NFL. His measurables and athleticism are exceptional and was highly productive for the Badgers last season. Watt could be the steal of the 2017 draft.
No. 30, Pittsburgh Steelers: Obi Melifonwu, S, Connecticut
Melifonwu, like former UConn teammate/safety Byron Jones, had one of the best Combines ever. A top-10 all-time performance of freakishness. The Steelers could also go David Njoku, Derek Barnett, Pat Mahomes, Charles Harris, Adoree' Jackson, Takk McKinley and so on, but I don't see any as a considerably better pick than Melifonwu.
No. 31, Atlanta Falcons: Forrest Lamp, G, Western Kentucky
The Falcons can't just take the foot off the gas pedal on offense just because they were historically good last season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is in San Francisco now and the line has some issues at guard with Hugh Thornton not expected to be much of a solution. Lamp, who some compare to Zack Martin, is a high-quality pick at 31.
No. 32, New Orleans Saints: Takkarist McKinley, DE, UCLA
This selection used to belong to New England, but the Patriots dealt it to the Saints in exchange for Brandin Cooks. Though they're now without Cooks, wide receiver should not be a huge area of need for New Orleans. Instead, the Saints have now added Foster and McKinley to the defense in a single day, giving them a considerable number of talented players on that side of the ball now.