NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
For those of us who take the task of producing mock drafts throughout the year, the free-agency period is a game-changer. Just a week into free agency, many previous mock draft projections have had to be completely scrapped, as teams’ projected draft strategies have changed with free agents changing hands from old to new teams.
In addition to free agency changing the personnel needs of each teams, some prospects’ draft stocks are also rising and falling with their pro day performances.
While the top pick in my mock draft projection has not changed, many of the projected selections are very different than they were even just before the start of free agency, as a result of who teams have signed/lost and which players are still on the board at each pick as the board shifts.
Third-round compensatory selections earned by Houston, Kansas City and Tennessee have been factored in this mock draft update, as well as potential trades and trades that have actually happened which have caused picks to change hands.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Sheldon Richardson, DE, Missouri
The Kansas City Chiefs need a difference-maker on their defensive line, especially following the loss of free-agent defensive end Glenn Dorsey to the San Francisco 49ers. As a result of that, a smart strategy for the Chiefs with the No. 1 overall pick would be to choose between the many top defensive line prospects on the board.
The Chiefs will be looking for a versatile interior defensive lineman who can line up at 5-technique defensive end, which gives them a choice between Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson, Utah’s Star Lotulelei and Florida’s Sharrif Floyd.
The best fit among them for the Chiefs is Richardson. Lotulelei is the top talent among the trio, but he faces serious health concerns after being sent home from the combine early with a heart condition. Between Richardson and Floyd, Richardson is the more natural interior pass-rusher, and the better fit to slide to defensive end as a 5-technique on the Chiefs’ three-man defensive front.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
The Jacksonville Jaguars sent a full contingent general manager David Caldwell, head coach Gus Bradley, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, director of player personnel Terry McDonough and vice president of technology and football analytics Tony Kahn to West Virginia’s pro day last Thursday, according to the Jaguars’ official Twitter account.
Considering that came just days into the start of NFL free agency, it would be hard to believe the Jaguars don’t have legitimate interest in drafting WVU quarterback Geno Smith at the No. 2 overall pick.
If Gus Bradley is going to build a defense reminiscent to what he had in Seattle as Seahawks defensive coordinator last year, the Jaguars would be smart to draft one of the top defensive prospects in the class with the No. 2 overall pick. That said, there is no clear-cut choice in a class that lacks elite prospects, and going all in for a potential upgrade over Blaine Gabbert could easily end up becoming the Jaguars’ plan if their contingent was impressed in Morgantown.
Caldwell previously said at the NFL Scouting Combine that the quarterback competition would be “wide-open” (per NFL.com), but if the Jaguars believe Smith can be the franchise quarterback they need, chances are good they will draft him to fill that opening.
3. Oakland Raiders: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
The Oakland Raiders have made a number of free-agent additions to their defensive front seven, but improving their pass-rush still persists as one of their most pressing needs. The Raiders would be smart to select the draft class’ best all-around defensive end, Bjoern Werner.
Werner may not be the athletic freak that Barkevious Mingo, Dion Jordan or Ezekiel Ansah is, but he is a much more well-rounded and polished football player. If the Raiders want to draft a player who can come in and immediately bolster their pass-rush while also being a three-down contributor who can make plays against the run, Werner is the right man for the selection.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
The Philadelphia Eagles have made some moves to start addressing their many defensive needs early in free agency, which really leaves them open for drafting the best player available at the No. 4 overall pick. The best player in the entire draft class is Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, and the Eagles shouldn’t pass him if afforded the opportunity to draft him.
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.
A defensive lineman in Utah’s Star Lotulelei or Florida’s Sharrif Floyd would also be a very good choice here, but with Lotulelei facing medical concerns and Floyd not necessarily being a natural fit for the 3-4 defense, Joeckel is the most solid choice for the Eagles in this scenario.
5. Detroit Lions: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
The Detroit Lions are going to have a new pair of starting offensive tackles next season. Longtime left tackle Jeff Backus retired, while right tackle Gosder Cherilus signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Drafting one of those offensive tackles with the No. 5 overall pick would be a very smart move for the Lions, and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is among the draft’s top talents.
Drafting Fisher would be the second consecutive first-round offensive tackle selected by the Lions, as they selected Iowa’s Riley Reiff with the No. 23 overall pick last season. Whether Reiff projects as the team’s long-term left tackle, however, is very much in question.
Fisher is a very good left tackle prospect who projects to be among the league’s top pass protectors for many years to come. By selecting Fisher, the Lions can keep Reiff at right tackle or inside at guard, while upgrading with a player who can come in immediately and lead the effort to keep Matt Stafford’s backside clean.
TRADE: The Buffalo Bills trade the No. 8 and No. 71 overall selections to the Cleveland Browns for the No. 6 overall selection.
6. Buffalo Bills (from Cleveland Browns): Matt Barkley, QB, USC
The Buffalo Bills’ need for a new quarterback was clear even before they released starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. With Fitzpatrick now out of the mix, the Bills’ top priority for the 2013 NFL draft should become finding a player who they believe to be capable of being their franchise quarterback, and putting themselves in the right position to draft him.
If that quarterback is USC’s Matt Barkley, they may very well have to move up to draft him. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller tweeted in February that Barkley is not expected to get past the Cardinals at the No. 7 overall pick, and with Kevin Kolb having been released and both Joeckel and Fisher off the board in this scenario, the chances of the Cardinals drafting Barkley appear increasingly likely.
The proposed trade here makes sense for both sides. By sacrificing their third-round pick, the Bills could ensure the chance to select Barkley if they in fact target him as a potential franchise quarterback. Meanwhile, the Browns are a team likely to explore trading down, and without a second-round pick, picking up even a third-round selection would be a good move for them.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
This scenario is one that would be far from ideal for the Arizona Cardinals. With Joeckel, Fisher, Smith and Barkley all off the board, the top two prospects at their two biggest positions of need are already off the board. That said, they wouldn’t have to settle too much by drafting Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson in their stead.
While Johnson is not as polished as Joeckel or Fisher, he has the most potential of any offensive tackle in the draft class. He is a great athlete with outstanding feet for an offensive tackle, and has a strong core. He has the potential to be a fantastic NFL left tackle, and has experience playing on the right side as well.
While finding a franchise quarterback is the Cardinals’ biggest need, they also must improve the offensive line that will protect that quarterback. With a major need at left tackle, Johnson would be a great choice to lead the pass-protection effort.
8. Cleveland Browns (from Buffalo Bills): Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
As the Cleveland Browns’ roster currently stands, trading down and still being able to select Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner would be a best-case scenario.
The Browns have one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Joe Haden, but have a major need to fill opposite him. They could still fill that need by signing the top remaining free-agent cornerback, Brent Grimes, who was flown into Cleveland earlier this week on a private jet according to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But with or without Grimes, Milliner should be among the top targets on the Browns’ draft board.
Milliner is a long, athletic cornerback with the potential to be a true shutdown corner at the next level, and would form a potentially elite tandem with Haden. A potential top-five pick, Milliner is worth selecting at No. 8, and would be a great addition to continue the Browns’ effort to rebuild their defense.
9. New York Jets: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
The New York Jets have a major need for finding an outside linebacker for their 3-4 defense who can really get after opposing pass-rushers. There are a number of tempting options available in this scenario, but the best among them is Georgia’s Jarvis Jones.
Jones’ stock is tough to predict due to medical concerns with his spinal stenosis, but health risks aside, Jones is one of the best players in the 2013 NFL draft class. Having played the position at Georgia, Jones is a natural fit to play outside linebacker in the Jets’ defense, and is a great athlete and active playmaker who can be the edge rusher the Jets need but also make plays all over the field against the run.
LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, Oregon’s Dion Jordan and BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah are all rising prospects who could also be in the mix at this selection for the Jets. The most polished all-around player among them, however, is Jones, who can come in and be an immediate standout on the Jets’ defensive front seven.
10. Tennessee Titans: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Brigham Young
The Tennessee Titans have a decent pair of starting defensive ends in Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley, but lack a big-impact player at the position. With a number of free-agent signings at other positions that have addressed some of the team’s greater needs, the Titans seem to be angling themselves toward making a run at one of the draft’s premier pass-rushing prospects.
Of all the top defensive ends in the 2013 draft class, none has seemed to rise more over the course of the season than BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah has a very raw game that lacks solid technique, but he is a boom-or-bust prospect who flashes the athleticism and skill set to develop into a star.
Taking Ansah in the top 10 picks is a big risk, but it is appearing more and more likely he will be selected in that range of the draft, and the Tennessee Titans are a potential fit.
11. San Diego Chargers: Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
The San Diego Chargers’ greatest need is to revamp their offensive line, a need that has become even greater with the loss of guard Louis Vasquez to the Denver Broncos. With the top left tackles off the board, the Chargers should turn their sights to selecting one of the draft’s top two guards, North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper or Alabama’s Chance Warmack.
Either is good value outside of the top 10 and both are fantastic prospects, but while Warmack has been hyped more, Cooper could end up being drafted ahead of him. Cooper has rare athleticism for a guard, but is also strong and powerful as a run blocker
A guard is not a sexy first-round pick, but Cooper would be an immediate upgrade on the interior offensive line with All-Pro potential. The Chargers need to rebuild their offensive line, and Cooper would be a great start.
12. Miami Dolphins: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Losing Sean Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs leaves the Miami Dolphins with a massive void at the cornerback position. Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks is a big, physical cornerback who is the draft’s second-best defensive back, and could be the replacement the Dolphins need for Smith in the secondary.
Banks has subpar speed for a cornerback, but he makes up for it with his instincts, physicality, length and ball skills. The Dolphins are in dire need of cornerbacks who can come in and play immediately, and they can get that from Banks, who is a polished playmaker.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
There is a lot of value on the board in this scenario at defensive tackle. The Buccaneers should take advantage of that value and add a top prospect who can form an elite defensive tackle tandem with Gerald McCoy.
There are four defensive tackles available who would all be great value at this selection, but Utah’s Star Lotulelei would be the hardest for the Buccaneers to pass up.
Although his stock could slip after being sent home early from the NFL Scouting Combine with a heart concern, he is a near-complete package on the field. Lotulelei has the size and power to occupy blockers as a nose tackle next to McCoy, but is also an explosive penetrator who will not only free up his teammates to make plays, but be an interior pass-rusher himself.
Lotulelei participated in a full workout at his pro day Friday, which is a good sign for his health, and he is the top talent available on the board if his health checks out.
14. Carolina Panthers: Jesse Williams, NT, Alabama
The Carolina Panthers are another team who should take advantage of the value on the board at defensive tackle. They have a major need to upgrade their interior defensive line, and should be looking for a player who can significantly improve their presence against the run.
There are three defensive tackles who are great value late in the top 15, but the best fit for the Panthers is Alabama’s Jesse Williams. Williams is the best true nose tackle in the draft class, with great size and point-of-attack strength, but he also has surprising quickness for his size which makes him more disruptive than just a space-eater.
15. New Orleans Saints: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
The biggest hole on the New Orleans Saints’ defense as they transition to the 3-4 scheme next season is their lack of a premier pass-rusher at outside linebacker. With the No. 15 overall pick, the Saints should stay close to home and add that player in LSU’s Barkevious Mingo.
Although a defensive end at LSU, Mingo is best suited to play 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level. He is an explosive athlete who is a dynamic rusher off the edge, while also being a very fluid athlete in space who should be able to make a smooth transition to playing outside linebacker, where he has the speed and quickness to cover ground quickly and make plays.
16. St. Louis Rams: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
The St. Louis Rams have a pressing need at safety, with no legitimate starting options whatsoever following the release of Quintin Mikell and departure of Craig Dahl. The Rams would be smart to use one of their two first-round picks on securing a safety, and the most likely choice is Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro is an aggressive, hard-hitting safety who is effective in coverage, can play either safety spot and also line up in slot coverage. He is a versatile defender who can add another playmaker to the Rams’ secondary, and be a big upgrade in both pass coverage and run support at safety.