NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The 2013 NFL Scouting Combine is less than a week away, and as a result, pre-draft chatter and speculation continues to increase.
Although the board can still be adjusted by players’ Combine and pro day performances, and teams’ draft strategies will be defined by free agency in March, NFL executives and scouts — and the media who cover the NFL draft — are watching more and more draft prospect tape to solidify their evaluations of the draft’s top prospects.
Before this weekend’s festivities kick off at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, I have updated my projections through the first three rounds of this year’s draft — including some major changes at the top of the board.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Star Lotulelei, DE/NT, Utah
Quarterback is the Kansas City Chiefs’ greatest need, and Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel is the draft’s top overall prospect. But it remains uncertain whether the Chiefs will bring back free agent Branden Albert to eliminate the need to draft a left tackle, and there is no quarterback worth selecting with the No. 1 overall pick.
That makes Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei the Chiefs’ best option at the top of the draft. He is an outstanding all-around interior defensive linemen, with the size and power to anchor the line as a nose tackle, but the explosive penetrating ability to also be an outstanding 5-technique defensive end.
With the selection of Lotulelei, the Chiefs could have their own replica of Haloti Ngata, a player who can play any spot on their three-man front and be a dominant three-down force.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
New Jacksonville Jaguars head coach and former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will certainly be looking for playmakers early in the draft who can improve a defense that ranked 30th in total defense and 29th in scoring defense this past season.
The Jaguars should be looking to add another player who can bring pressure off the edge but also be an asset on run defense. With Star Lotulelei off the board, their best bet is to upgrade a subpar linebacker corps and add an outstanding playmaker in Georgia’s Jarvis Jones.
While Jones is not quite Von Miller, he is a very good fit for Bradley’s defense. Although Bradley’s scheme is a 4-3, it utilizes outside linebackers similarly to a 3-4 scheme often. Jones could be an immediate upgrade at strongside linebacker, where he can make plays all over the field on run defense but also line up as an edge pass-rusher, both standing up and as a defensive end on the line.
3. Oakland Raiders: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
With only 25 total sacks, the Oakland Raiders were one of the NFL’s worst pass-rushing teams last season. The Raiders could go a long way to fix that by drafting Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner with the No. 3 overall pick.
Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner could help fix that problem. Werner is an explosive rusher off the edge with great speed, length and rush technique, but he is also strong at the point of attack and is good in space as a run defender. He is the best 4-3 defensive end in the draft class, and can be the premier pass-rusher the Raiders lack.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
The Philadelphia Eagles have greater needs than at left tackle, but if Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is still available at the No. 4 overall pick, they should not pass upon his value.
Joeckel could be a franchise player to lead the Eagles’ offensive line for many years to come. For a unit that struggled with injuries and disappointing performances in 2012, the long, angular and athletic Joeckel could be a leader and star for the group going forward.
Jason Peters is one of the NFL’s best left tackles but is coming off multiple injuries to his Achilles tendon. If Peters returns to his All-Pro form, Joeckel could be an immediate upgrade at right tackle, which would allow the Eagles to fill a need at right guard by shifting Todd Herremans inside, all the while grooming Joeckel into their left tackle of the future.
The best overall prospect in the 2013 draft class, Joeckel’s value is too good to pass up.
5. Detroit Lions: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
The Detroit Lions are already very weak at cornerback, and their best cornerback, Chris Houston, is an unrestricted free agent.
Upgrading at the position is arguably their biggest need. Alabama’s Dee Milliner is an outstanding all-around cornerback prospect with great length and ball skills, has great coverage instincts and plays with physicality.
The importance of having a strong and deep secondary is increasing in importance every year, which makes a great cornerback prospect like Milliner well worth a top-5 investment. Milliner can be an immediate upgrade at the position, and is among the best players available.
6. Cleveland Browns: Damontre Moore, DE/OLB, Texas A&M
The Browns do not have any premier pass-rushers, a need more important to fill than ever as new defensive coordinator Ray Horton plans to install a hybrid defense next season.
The Browns need to find a hybrid pass-rusher with the ability to explode off the edge and rush both as a defensive end and as an outside linebacker. The Browns can get that player in Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore, who has experience playing both positions and is a skilled pass-rusher who can be also be an asset in run defense.
Moore is not quite the top-10 prospect he is made out to be, but he is the second-best hybrid pass-rusher in the class behind Bjoern Werner. With a consistent premium on pass-rushers each year in the NFL draft, Moore will be selected high, and would be a very good fit for the Browns’ defense.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
The Arizona Cardinals have a major need at quarterback, but they also desperately need to rebuild their offensive line. West Virginia’s Geno Smith is very much in play at this selection as a potential franchise quarterback, but the better value would be to add a legitimate top-10 prospect and franchise left tackle talent in Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher.
Rebuilding the line starts with improving the pass protection, especially at left tackle. Fisher is an outstanding pass-protector with great length and quick feet. He can be an immediate starter.
8. Buffalo Bills: Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone said there will be an “open competition” at the quarterback position next season, and neither Ryan Fitzpatrick nor Tarvaris Jackson is the quarterback a new head coach wants to build an offense around. The Bills should be looking to add a rookie quarterback to that competition, and the best choice for them would be Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson.
Marrone and general manager Buddy Nix should be looking for a polished downfield pocket passer who can drive the ball downfield with accuracy, something neither Fitzpatrick nor Jackson has done with accuracy as an NFL quarterback. While Wilson has his own issues with inconsistency, he has a strong arm, good pocket presence and the ability to make any throw on the field.
9. New York Jets: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
After Mark Sanchez’s dismal 2012 campaign, it is quite clear the Jets need to find a new franchise quarterback. If West Virginia’s Geno Smith is still on the board at the No. 9 overall pick, it would come as a big surprise if the Jets pass him up.
Smith’s stock has been slipping somewhat due to questions with footwork, pocket presence and making reads, but it will still be a surprise if he falls outside of the top 10 picks. With a strong arm, great release and good athleticism, Smith has the most upside of any quarterback in the 2013 draft class.
Throwing Smith into the fire in New York would be a very dangerous situation, but with a handicapping Mark Sanchez contract that will likely stop them from adding another veteran quarterback, Smith may be their best option.
10. Tennessee Titans: Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
It is very rare for a guard to be a top-10 draft selection. Even Stanford’s David DeCastro, who was considered to be one of the best guard prospects in years, slipped to the No. 24 overall selection in last year’s draft. That said, Alabama’s Chance Warmack is a special talent at guard.
Rebuilding the interior offensive line is a major need for the Titans, and the addition of Warmack would go a long way to fix that. Warmack is a massive, powerful mauling guard, but is also quick and agile, making him very good as both a run and pass blocker.
The Titans could go in many different directions with this draft pick. If they can find a trading partner, moving down would probably be their best move, which would allow them to pick up more selections and get better value on a guard or a safety, to address one of their two biggest needs.
In this scenario, however, Warmack makes the most sense as one of the best players available on the board while also filling a position of need.
11. San Diego Chargers: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
With a draft premium on left tackles, Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson is one of the draft’s most quickly-rising prospects. The Chargers desperately need to upgrade at offensive tackle, and would be smart to pounce on the opportunity to draft him here.
Johnson is not as polished as Joeckel or Fisher, but has massive potential to play tackle on either side of the line — both positions where the Chargers need upgrades.
Johnson has outstanding athletic ability, great lower-body strength and good length. He needs to become a more powerful blocker, but could still be an immediate upgrade for the Chargers, especially in pass protection.
12. Miami Dolphins: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Sean Smith is an unrestricted free agent who may not return to the Dolphins next season, and the Dolphins are very weak at cornerback outside of him. Whether Smith returns or not, the Dolphins would make a very smart choice in selecting Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks with their first-round pick.
Banks is a big, athletic cornerback who plays with physicality, is instinctive, has good ball skills and is a sound tackler. A steady defensive back who can also be a playmaker, Banks fits what the Dolphins need in their secondary.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in Gerald McCoy, but are in need of a big, strong nose tackle who can complement him. Ohio State’s Johnathan Hankins would be a great fit.
A powerful 320-pounder with quickness, Hankins will often occupy multiple blockers, and if he can do that for the Buccaneers, he can free up McCoy and the Buccaneers’ other playmakers on the defensive front seven to penetrate
14. Carolina Panthers: Jesse Williams, NT, Alabama
The Carolina Panthers have a major need to upgrade at defensive tackle, and fortunately for them, there are many first-round talents available at the position in the 2013 NFL draft. For what the Panthers need most — a big, physical, run-stuffing nose tackle — the best option is Alabama’s Jesse Williams.
Williams is very strong and quick off the snap, which he uses to occupy and drive back blockers. The addition of Williams would enable players in the Panthers’ defensive front like Charles Johnson and Luke Kuechly to make more plays in the backfield.
15. New Orleans Saints: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
As the New Orleans Saints switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme next season under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, one of their biggest needs is for a pass-rushing outside linebacker. LSU’s Barkevious Mingo is best suited to play that position at the next level, and could be a dynamic pass-rusher off the edge for their defense.
Mingo is a terrific athlete who explodes off the edge, has great length and is among the best candidates in this year’s draft to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. For a roster that has very few players well-suited to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, especially as a pass-rusher, Mingo would be a great choice at the end of the top 15.
16. St. Louis Rams: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
The St. Louis Rams need to upgrade at the safety position, and with buzz increasingly rising for Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro, it is looking increasingly less likely he will be available when the Rams are on the clock again at the No. 22 overall pick.
Vaccaro can play either safety spot and even play slot cornerback, and could be a big upgrade on the back end of their defense. He is an athletic safety who is effective in coverage and strikes his opponents as a hitter.
Vaccaro may be slightly overrated, but it appears he will be the first safety drafted in April, and the Rams would be smart not to pass up the chance to draft him.