We dive head-first into our inaugural NFL mini-mock draft with one important caveat: Do NOT go to Vegas and put your hard-earned money on these predictions. Oh, sure, I’m fairly certain that I’ll have better than a 75-percent hit rate, but, you know. Just in case.
I’ve picked the brains of many front-office executives and scouts this offseason, which guarantees me nothing. But we’re going to have fun trying to nail these picks. WARNING: We aren’t going chalk. There will be trades in real life, so there will be trades in this mini-mock.
Without further ado, here’s the first glimpse into my crystal ball.
1) Browns: USC QB Sam Darnold
How can you not feel bad for the Factory of Sadness? No devout fanbase should have to endure such hardship for so long. Although new Cleveland general manager John Dorsey is smitten with Josh Allen’s physical gifts, the Wyoming quarterback is simply too much of risk for a franchise looking to wipe the stench of their 1-31 record in the past two seasons.
Darnold will save the day.
Real Talk: USC’s offensive scheme was a smorgasbord of slop. Scouts far and wide told me that they still don’t quite know what to make of the Trojans’ offense or the quality of coaching that Darnold received. But the tape doesn’t lie. The kid has so many qualities that make you think that he’ll be a star one day. His ability to sense and escape pressure is, well, awesome. He can extend plays, throw on the move and pick up yards with his feet. He needs to curtail his turnovers, but there’s something special about this player. Maybe he can finally bring life to this lost franchise.
2) Bills (via trade with Giants): Wyoming QB Josh Allen
Things get interesting real fast in Mini-Mockville. We’re betting against recent history here: Giants GM Dave Gettleman never traded down once in five drafts in Carolina. (He traded up six times, FYI.) But Buffalo is on a mission to get a franchise quarterback.
You think Sean McDermott is going into the season with an A.J. McCarron-Nathan Peterman combo platter at the game’s most important position? Think again.
Rookie GM Brandon Beane channels his inner Howie Roseman by climbing from No. 21 to No. 12 to No. 6 to No. 2. A deal with the always open-for-business Colts, who slid to No. 6 in a trade with the Jets a few weeks ago, sets the stage for this deal with the G-Men.
3) Jets: Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
Josh Rosen, Josh Rosen, Josh Rosen, Josh Ro—
Eh, what the heck: Let’s go with the Heisman Trophy winner … for now.
Full disclosure: If I were calling the shots on One Jets Drive, I would take Rosen in a heartbeat. He’s got “star” written all over him. Jeremy Bates would challenge him like no coach has ever done. And you know what? Rosen is skilled enough and smart enough to be King of the World in New York.
So, did the Jets actually give up three second-round picks to move up three spots to take a relatively short quarterback (6-foot, 5/8) with relatively small hands (9 ¼ inches) to play in a cold-weather city? I’ve already gotten word from folks in Florham Park that they don’t give a damn about other teams’ evaluations, conventional wisdom or media quarterback rankings. They’re picking their guy. Period.
Look, Mayfield is a leader with a competitive streak that I absolutely love. There are fair concerns, however, about his physical stature, footwork and spread-system background. But there are folks in the building that really like the guy. Heck, Todd Bowles was publicly fawning over Mayfield so much at the league meetings last week that you would have thought that Baker was an extended member of the Bowles family. The HC of the NYJ even invoked Fran Tarkenton while poo-pooing a question about Mayfield’s height. By the way, Tarkenton was awesome in That’s Incredible! with Cathy Lee Crosby and John Davidson, but I digress.
Hopefully, when push comes to shove, the Jets make the smartest move: Draft Rosen.
4) Browns: Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
What a time to be alive in Believeland. Cleveland walks away from the first half hour of the draft with Aaron Rodgers and Marshall Faulk. (Fingers crossed.)
Barkley could be a generational talent. He’s clean on and off the field. If he turns out to be Todd Gurley-eque, the Browns will have hit a home run.
5) Broncos: UCLA QB Josh Rosen
Well, well, well. The Jets’ loss is John Elway’s gain. Rosen is destined for greatness. Look, he won’t be great off schedule like Denver starter Case Keenum was last year in Minnesota.
Rosen won’t be a dual threat, either. He won’t be waving pom-poms, that’s for sure, but it’s misguided to suggest that he doesn’t have a passion for football. He’s a pocket passer with the kind of incredible intellect that will carve up defenses for a very long time.
A silent assassin.
Elway can wipe away the Paxton Lynch blunder by getting the best quarterback in this draft class without trading up for him.
Rosen is the FOURTH quarterback off the board?! Sometimes the legends get all the breaks.
6) Giants (via trade with the Bills via trade with the Colts): N.C. State EDGE Bradley Chubb
Truth be told, Gettleman would have stayed put at No. 2 and grabbed Darnold, but the Browns screwed up that plan. So, the G-Men do the next best thing: Pick up additional draft capital from the quarterback-hungry Bills and draft the top edge rusher in this class to replace Jason Pierre-Paul.
7) Buccaneers: Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson
Jameis Winston will send a fruit basket to GM Jason Licht for massive offensive line upgrades this offseason. First, Tampa adds center Ryan Jensen in free agency. Now, they get a bedrock in the trenches for the next decade.
8) Bears: Ohio State CB Denzel Ward
GM Ryan Pace made no secret that he wanted to upgrade his secondary this offseason. Chicago offered free-agent CB Malcolm Butler a three-year deal before the former Patriot signed with the Titans. Missing out on Butler might wind up being a blessing in disguise for the Bears if they land the uber-talented (but not particularly tall) Ward. The dream scenario for Pace & Co. might have been Nelson sliding to them, but that ain’t happening.
9) 49ers: Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
After pouring oodles of cash into his quarterback (Jimmy G), center (Weston Richburg) and new offensive toy (Jerick McKinnon) this offseason, it’s a fair bet that GM John Lynch will look to invest in the other side of the ball with this pick. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was in Seattle during the birth of the Legion of Boom, so he understands the importance of solidifying the back end with playmakers. The versatile Fitzpatrick is more safety than corner. Think Tyrann Mathieu and Malcolm Jenkins.
10) Raiders: Georgia LB Roquan Smith
Jon Gruden sure could use a cornerstone player to anchor the second level of his defense. Smith makes too much sense for this not to happen.
11) Dolphins: Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds
Truth be told, I sort of think that Edmunds might be off the board before Miami is on the clock (see: 49ers). Mike Tannenbaum probably does too. So, he’ll be doing backflips if the explosive, rangy Edmunds lands in his lap.
Don’t rule out a possible trade up, either. I get the feeling that Mr. T might try to make a splash move into the Top 5 for a quarterback like he did eight years ago to get Mark Sanchez. Just sayin’.
12) Colts (via trade with the Bills): USTA EDGE Marcus Davenport
GM Chris Ballard had nine picks in the first three rounds over the next two years entering this draft. He’ll walk away with more premium draft capital after trading down for the second time this offseason. He’ll miss out on Chubb (who would have likely been the pick if Indy stayed at No. 6), but Davenport isn’t a bad consolation prize.
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