— By Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com —
NFL teams needing help at quarterback will have no excuses this year with a crop of talent worthy of comparison to even the renowned Class of 1983, which set a modern-day record with six quarterbacks selected in the first round, half of whom are now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
No one knows if any of the five quarterbacks featured in this early first-round projection of the 2018 NFL Draft will ever achieve glory like John Elway, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino, but this much is already clear — the Cleveland Browns are in the enviable position of getting the first pick of a class led by USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
Though it won’t gain nearly the attention of the quarterbacks, scouts are also excited about a rare class of interior offensive linemen — a group that also rivals the best the league has seen in years.
Much will change between now and April 28 with free agency certain to shake up the rosters and needs for every club in the league. As of now, however, this is how I see the top 32 picks shaking out:
1. CLEVELAND BROWNS: Sam Darnold, QB, USC*: While perhaps not yet as polished a passer as his Los Angeles counterpart Rosen, Darnold possesses the best combination of physical traits and intangibles to project as a longtime franchise quarterback. History tells us that the new front office led by GM John Dorsey values talent and toughness as much as statistics, making Darnold the clear favorite for No. 1 overall — at least with how the roster is currently constructed.
2. NEW YORK GIANTS: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA*: An elite runner like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley could be exactly what Eli Manning (and Odell Beckham Jr.) need to get the Giants back on track immediately, but new general manager Dave Gettleman may find it hard to pass on a talent like Rosen — this year’s most gifted passer.
3. INDIANPOLIS COLTS: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State*: All indications are that Andrew Luck will be back in 2018, though no one knows how effective he will be. While acknowledging a defense desperately in need of playmakers, adding a dynamic talent like Barkley to soften Luck’s return and make the Colts less one-dimensional seems like an easy choice.
4. CLEVELAND BROWNS (from HOUSTON TEXANS): Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/S, Alabama*: Almost surely drafting a quarterback at No. 1 overall, Dorsey and his staff should be in position to take the best available player here. Given that Cleveland surrendered four times as many touchdowns passes (28) as it intercepted in 2017, adding Fitzpatrick — the reigning Thorpe and Bednarik Award winner — would make sense on every front.
5. DENVER BRONCOS: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming*: Having scouted him in person at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and working with him at the Senior Bowl, no general manager in the NFL likely knows Allen better than Elway — one of the few in league history to rival this kid’s prototypical combination of size, arm strength and athleticism.
6. NEW YORK JETS: Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: The Jets boast one of the league’s most gifted defensive lines but lack a disruptive element off the edge. In terms of his production, technique and work ethic, Chubb — a two-time All-American coming off a season in which he made 72 tackles, including 14 for loss and 10 sacks — might just be the safest player in the draft.
7. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame*: Boosting a pass rush that finished last in the NFL in sacks (22) in 2017 is an obvious priority, but general manager Jason Licht should not over-think this with Nelson, arguably the best player in the entire draft, still available. Protecting the investment made in Jameis Winston remains Tampa Bay’s best strategy.
8. CHICAGO BEARS: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: It is perhaps appropriate that Bears’ legendary middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was voted into Canton this year as Chicago could find itself in position to add a similar physical specimen in the 6-4, 250-pound Edmunds.
**9. (tie) OAKLAND RAIDERS: Vita Vea, DT, Washington*: Despite the presence of edge rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, the Raiders sacked opposing quarterbacks just 31 times in 2017. To put that into perspective, just one playoff team — Buffalo (27) — finished with fewer. Vea isn’t a dominant pass rusher, but he is a freakish athlete who requires multiple blockers, freeing up opponents to wreak havoc.
**10. (tie) SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama*: The future looks bright in San Francisco with general manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and first-round picks Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster each looking like long-term fixes, collectively sparking the 49ers to five consecutive wins to end the 2017 season. Adding a No. 1 target for Garoppolo would seem like the next logical move. Ridley is a silky-smooth athlete from a pro-style scheme who projects well at flanker in Shanahan’s offense.
11. MIAMI DOLPHINS: Derwin James, SS, Florida State*: Coverage and open-field tackling were season-long issues for the Dolphins, which allowed one of the league’s worst touchdown-to-interception ratios in 2017, picking off just nine passes while surrendering 26 scores. After shaking off the rust from missing much of the 2016 season due to injury, James began living up to his billing as the “next Sean Taylor,” proving a difference-maker for the Seminoles.
12. CINCINNATI BENGALS: Billy Price, OG/C, Ohio State: The Bengals raised some eyebrows across the league by firing respected offensive line coach Paul Alexander, but the reality is many of Cincinnati’s struggles on offense in 2017 can be attributed to poor blocking. Two interior linemen among the top 12 picks would be rare but not unprecedented. Price is considered a plug-and-play candidate at guard or center with the Bengals’ starter at the latter — Russell Bodine — a pending free agent.
13. WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia*: Following the splashy trade for Alex Smith, Washington might turn its attention to adding a quarterback on defense, with no less than five traditional linebackers set for free agency. Smith, the 2017 Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, lacks ideal bulk but his speed to the flanks and in coverage makes him perfectly suited to today’s modern pass-happy NFL.
14. GREEN BAY PACKERS: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State*: The Packers have invested heavily at cornerback but it would be hard to pass up Ward at this point in the draft. Ward may lack preferred height, but he possesses elite feet and instincts with experience playing inside and out.
15. ARIZONA CARDINALS: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: With Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer retiring, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim will be looking for new faces to spark Arizona’s passing game. Mayfield, shorter than ideal and coming from a spread offense that has not consistently resulted in NFL success, is not for everyone. But he is an undeniable playmaker and could be the dramatic shift Keim and the Cardinals are looking for.
16. BALTIMORE RAVENS: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M*: Despite using multiple draft picks and investing in free agents, the Ravens’ receiving corps essentially remains a black hole for production with Baltimore ranking last (and by a significant margin) with just 5.7 yards per passing attempt in 2017. Teams could be gun shy about selecting a receiver in the first round, given how much last year’s class has struggled, but Kirk has the raw athleticism to become strong-armed Joe Flacco’s big-play specialist.
17. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama*: Veteran nose guard Brandon Mebane was a solid signing but his best days are behind him. The Chargers — who ranked last in the league in 2017 by allowing 4.9 yards per carry — would likely jump at the chance to fortify the middle with the powerful (and aptly named) Payne.
18. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU*: The Seahawks already spent their second- and third-round picks of the 2018 draft, landing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (Jets) and offensive tackle Duane Brown (Texans) in trades, leaving general manager John Schneider with essentially two choices here — either trade back to recoup picks or directly address the club’s anemic running game. The 5-11, 218-pound Guice possesses the combination of burst, balance through contact and toughness Seattle has lacked since Marshawn Lynch left town.
19. DALLAS COWBOYS: Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan: Injuries and suspensions robbed the Cowboys of some of their more talented defensive linemen in 2017, leaving veteran coordinator Rod Marinelli little to work with, other than Demarcus Lawrence, who exploded for an NFL-best 14.5 sacks just in time to hit it rich as a pending free agent. Whether Dallas is successful in luring Lawrence back or not, Hurst (an NFL legacy with an Aaron Donald-like game) could star under Marinelli’s guidance.
20. DETROIT LIONS: Marcus Davenport, DE, UT-San Antonio: If the Lions are able to retain free agent Ziggy Ansah — who registered 12 sacks during an injury-shortened 2017 campaign — Detroit might be able to look at addressing its annually disappointing running game. With depth better at running back than edge rusher, however, adding a blue-chip athlete like Davenport to develop opposite Ansah (and solid youngster Anthony Zettel) might be the best way to spark a playoff run.
21. BUFFALO BILLS: Arden Key, OLB, LSU*: The Bills finished last among playoff teams with just 27 sacks over the regular season. That won’t sit well with defensive-minded head coach Sean McDermott, who could see Key as the perfect edge rusher to unlock Buffalo’s potential.
22. BUFFALO BILLS (from KANSAS CITY CHIEFS): Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville*: Adding a talent like Kelvin Benjamin will surely help, but the Bills might not be finished addressing a poor passing attack. Jackson plays a similar style as Tyrod Taylor, relying upon his legs as much as his arm or eyes. He is younger, cheaper and has a higher upside, however — characteristics the Bills may consider with two first-round picks this season due to Kansas City’s trade up last year to nab their quarterback of the future, Patrick Mahomes.
23. LOS ANGELES RAMS: Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn*: With top cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner and Nickell Robey-Coleman each pending free agents, the Rams may need to take a look at the future. Davis, among the biggest and most talented cornerbacks in the 2018 draft, could be seen as a potential replacement outside for Johnson, who is expected to command big dollars if he makes it the open market.
24. CAROLINA PANTHERS: Connor Williams, OT, Texas*: As long as Cam Newton is taking snaps in Carolina, the focus should be on adding massive maulers for the running game. While considered by most to be the top tackle in this year’s draft, Williams isn’t an elite prospect, struggling a bit with consistency prior to suffering a knee injury that shortened his 2017 season. When healthy, his size, balance and competitiveness as a run blocker could remind the Panthers of former longtime standout left tackle Jordan Gross.
25. TENNESSEE TITANS: Will Hernandez, OG, Texas-El Paso: The fact that the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles made the NFC championship despite starting backup quarterbacks is a testament to their dominance at the line of scrimmage and a model many teams will be looking to duplicate. Plugging in a powerful run blocker like Hernandez on an offensive line already boasting Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin could give Tennessee a similarly unstoppable front.
26. ATLANTA FALCONS: Isaiah Wynn, OG, Georgia: The Falcons won’t have to look far for a perfect candidate to add toughness and athleticism to their offensive line with Wynn proving at the Senior Bowl that he is ready to move back inside to guard after starring at left tackle in 2017 for the SEC champion Bulldogs.
27. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma: Second-year wideout Michael Thomas emerged as one of the league’s best last season, but adding another talented pass-catcher to this offense could make the Saints virtually impossible to defend. While not quite as big as former star Jimmy Graham (a pending free agent in Seattle), Andrews possesses a similar ability to attack the seam.
28. PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State: The frightening spinal injury to star Ryan Shazier could force the Steelers to strongly consider investing an early pick at inside linebacker. Some will criticize Vander Esch as a one-year wonder at Boise State but the same criticism also followed standout rookie T.J. Watt at Wisconsin. Like Watt, Vander Esch has the motor Steelers fans will love, as well as the length, athleticism and playmaking ability to earn a first-round selection.
29. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU*: Selecting a wide receiver in the first round may not sound like a typical Tom Coughlin move but considering that the Jaguars have already invested big dollars in retaining Allen Hurns — and Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee are pending free agents — Coughlin and Co. may have little choice but to consider stocking up at pass-catcher. The 6-3, 218-pound Sutton is the 2018 draft’s best at boxing out cornerbacks to win 50-50 balls, scoring 31 touchdowns over the past three seasons.
30. MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: As long as Mike Zimmer is coaching the team, size and physicality will be a premium for future Vikings. McGlinchey lacks the athleticism to wow scouts during pre-draft workouts, but an old school coach like Zimmer will appreciate McGlinchey’s size (6-7, 312 pounds), toughness and consistency.
31. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Taven Bryan, DL, Florida*: For all of the success Bill Belichick has enjoyed as coach, his willingness to gamble on upside as a general manager has led to plenty of surprise draft picks. Bryan, a physical freak whose best football lies ahead of him, is one of the wildcards of the 2018 draft and would make sense for a team lacking difference-makers up front.
32. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama*: The Super Bowl champs boast one of the more complete rosters in the NFL but could use an intimidator in the back end. Harrison remains better against the run than the pass at this point, but he could be afforded a “redshirt” year with veterans Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod already in place in Philadelphia.
**Order to be determined by coin flip