(RNN) – Predicting March Madness correctly is difficult, but predicting its April successor – the NFL Draft – is even harder.
Trying to predict what the people who run NFL teams are thinking – or not thinking (looking at you, Oakland Raiders) – is an exercise in futility. Nevertheless, mock drafts are as much a part of spring as baseball and the Masters.
What lurks below is an attempt to make sense of the future of the NFL with projected selections in Thursday's first round using the draft order as it currently exists. Trades are a virtual certainty (one's already happened) and their possibility is discussed, but no changes to the order were projected.
1. Kansas City – Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M The Chiefs appear willing to trade out of the top spot because there is no "sure thing" in this year's draft and no consensus on the top choice. Kansas City has many needs, but could get a solid offensive tackle later in the draft or even go for a quarterback. If that's the Chiefs' plan, they will trade because there isn't a quarterback worthy of such a lofty draft pick in this year's class.
As it relates to Joeckel, he is as reliable as they come. The 2012 Outland Trophy winner blocked for the make-up-an-offense-as-you-go quarterback stylings of Johnny Manziel while on his march toward the Heisman Trophy. Joeckel, who chose to forego his senior season, is a dominant pass blocker and the NFL is a pass-heavy league. The 6'6" 306-pounder is a solid cornerstone to build any offense around and whoever ends up playing QB for the Chiefs will relish the protection he provides.
2. Jacksonville – Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan There doesn't seem to be much of a chance for Jacksonville to trade. In fact, the team has already said it has its choices down to two names. That's all it needs, so the Jaguars are pretty set at this point.
Most analysts have the Jaguars taking a defensive player, with Oregon's Dion Jordan the favorite. Fisher is bit of a wild card choice, but Jacksonville needs protection for its quarterback, who will likely be drafted with the first pick of the second round. But defense is the team's primary need and it has a defense-minded head coach, so it's anyone's guess.
3. Oakland – Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida The biggest need – and it's a big one – for the Raiders is at defensive line. But really the Raiders need everything. Their best move is to trade and get more draft picks to build a foundation for the future, because there is no present, but doing what is "best" is not what the Raiders usually do.
The problem with trying to trade for draft picks is the only thing the Raiders have to bargain with is draft picks, so trading wouldn't be very productive in the long run. Floyd was one of the best performers at the NFL Combine and was clocked at 4.87 in the 40-yard dash, which is stellar for a 300-plus-pounder.
4. Philadelphia – Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon Philadelphia is switching to the 3-4 defense under new coach Chip Kelly and is only one piece away from being completely set in that regard. With no quarterback being worth such a lofty draft position, the Eagles will probably get its defense fixed early.
The match is a fairly obvious one. Jordan played for Oregon and Kelly just left Oregon to move to the NFL, so it seems like the logical thing to do. The other strong possibility is to go for defensive tackle rather than end and take Utah's Star Lotulelei. That's likely what will happen if Jordan goes to Jacksonville.
5. Detroit – Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama Detroit is at the mercy of other teams. With so many top defenders available this year, a lot of teams want to move up to draft them. Detroit is kind of stuck, because moving up doesn't make a lot of sense. Cornerbacks aren't historically taken this high, so even though Milliner is an elite player, it's a gamble.
If the Lions stay at No. 5, they're guaranteed to be able to draft a top defender, but it may not be the one they want. Milliner is considered by some as the best player in the draft and could be taken higher than any other cornerback in the history of the draft. If any team, including Cleveland, Miami and the New York Jets, trades up into the top 5, they're going after Milliner. Detroit could easily do the same or sit and wait to see who comes to them.
6. Cleveland – E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State If Cleveland doesn't trade – up or down – it will be because Milliner is still on the board. He's their top target and if he's not an option, they will trade back to get some more picks and take a quarterback when their time comes back around.
Not only is taking a quarterback this high a huge gamble this year, but debates are raging whether any quarterback in the draft is even worth a first round pick, and even more so who is the best one. The Browns' coach has compared Manuel to Cam Newton, which proves he's delusional enough to think this would be a smart choice. It's a near guarantee Cleveland won't be picking at No. 6 by Thursday night, but the Browns could very well take a quarterback wherever they end up.
7. Arizona – Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma The Cardinals are definitely interested in an offensive lineman and Johnson is considered one of the best. He has the athleticism of a wide receiver, but is inexperienced and his blocking ability has been questioned.
If Johnson is still here, the Cardinals will likely take him, but a couple of other linemen – D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack – will be considered too. Arizona also needs help on the defensive front, so Barkevious Mingo or Ezekiel Ansah could be other options.
8. Buffalo – Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia Quarterback has been a big target for Buffalo in the weeks leading up to the draft. Buffalo has an empty hole on the offensive line, but the Bills drafted two tackles and a guard last year, so it doesn't seem likely they would go that direction again – at least not this early.
Wide receiver and linebacker are other positions of need. Tavon Austin, a prime target of Smith at WVU, could be an option as well as Jarvis Jones and Ansah. If no quarterback is taken ahead of this selection – and it's likely there won't be one – Buffalo may wait until the second round to take one, trade that pick up to get back into the first round or trade this pick down a few spots.
9. New York Jets – Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia The Jets recently unloaded cornerback Darrelle Revis for Tampa Bay's No. 13 pick, so using either this pick or that one as additional trade bait to move up and taken Milliner as his replacement is a possibility. But New York can wait until the second round and still do that by taking either Jonathan Banks or Darius Slay, both from Mississippi State.
Of course, Milliner could still be available here, though that seems unlikely. Either way, the Jets are expected to go for defense early. There's still a lot of high-end defensive talent to be had and any one of about five names will be bandied about.
10. Tennessee – Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina If Milliner is still available at pick No. 8, Tennessee would most likely trade up to get him before the Jets do. They may even be willing to trade up higher than that.
Assuming Milliner gets snatched up along the way by someone else, the Titans will turn their eyes to the offensive line, which is probably their biggest need anyway. It will come down to Cooper and Chance Warmack. It's been more than a decade since a guard went in the first 10 picks and both Warmack and Cooper could go that high. Warmack is a better blocker, but Cooper is more athletic.
11. San Diego – Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri Most projections have the Chargers taking an offensive lineman, and almost all of them say it will be the leftover choice between Cooper and Warmack. That doesn't seem practical. Offensive line is a need for sure, but it's at tackle, not guard.
An absolute outlier would be Barrett Jones, who won the Outland Trophy as a tackle, but played center last year for Alabama. That has most teams dropping him much lower on their boards than he should probably go, so even if he is the best offensive lineman still available, he would probably still be available when the Chargers pick in the second round. San Diego is devoid of bodies on the defensive front, and Richardson – or Star Lotulelei – would solve that problem.
12. Miami – D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama Miami has a hole at tackle and a tackle on their roster who can play on both ends of the line. That means they aren't limited in their choices. Flexibility is something teams covet and it frees up Miami to take the best available player, whoever they think that might be.
This could be a little high for Fluker, but he's not a gamble. He has helped protect AJ McCarron en route to a couple of national championships and the only downside to him being taken this high is he's been a right tackle and not a left tackle. Cornerback is another area of interest for the Dolphins, and they might trade up for Milliner or sit here and take Florida State's Xavier Rhodes.
13. New York Jets (from Tampa Bay) – Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU As stated above, there's a small chance New York drafts both here and at No. 9 (San Francisco will be all but begging for this pick), but if they do, their choices will be endless. Cornerback, defensive line, linebacker, quarterback and wide receiver are all possible selections.
The Jets will likely take the best available player regardless of his position, and Ansah would fit that bill. Ansah is a good bet to be taken higher than 13 because of his athleticism. He's 6'5" 271 and ran a 4.63 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. His 4.26 in the shuttle drill was the fastest time at the combine. Ansah could be a defensive end or a linebacker in the Jets' scheme, making him a valuable asset if he's still available.
14. Carolina – Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah The Panthers need men up front – on both sides of the ball. If offensive linemen fly off the board as they have done in this projection, the best available interior defensive lineman will be taken by Carolina.
Warmack would be another possibility, but the Panthers need a tackle, not a guard. Another possibility would be a play-making wide receiver such as Cordarrelle Patterson or DeAndre Hopkins. A trade could also materialize with the 49ers if the Jets keep both their picks.
15. New Orleans – Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU This may very well be a best-case scenario choice for the Saints. New Orleans is moving to the 3-4 defense after having the worst defense in the NFL last year. The Saints specifically need a pass rusher and Mingo might be the best one in the draft.
But the Jets will have two chances to steal him. Mingo represents the obvious choice if he's available, but New Orleans also needs an offensive tackle. Without a second round pick, the Saints could go either way, but their defense has been overhauled twice in two seasons and is in desperate need of stability. Not taking Mingo if he's available will be a hard sell to a fan base full of LSU faithful who would like to keep cheering for Mingo.
16. St. Louis – Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia The Rams are in excellent position, because they need players at positions that nobody else needs and have two first round picks to get them. Wide receiver, safety and running back are their top needs, and no one is likely to make those positions a high priority.
Even if their first choice at either position is gone at this point, their second choice is likely to be available. If Austin is gone, this will pick will probably be for a safety – either Eric Reid or Kenny Vaccaro. If he's available, Austin goes here and the safety is taken at No. 22.
17. Pittsburgh – Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia Pittsburgh could do any number of things with this pick, and none are a lock. The Steelers have question marks at linebacker, safety, receiver and running back. Tight end is another possibility with Notre Dame's Tyler Eiffert being a prime choice.
It's doubtful Pittsburgh uses its top two selections on the same side of the ball. It's a reach to go after Eddie Lacy this early so the Steelers will hope to wait until the second round for the Alabama tailback, who has been battling injuries this offseason. St. Louis is Pittsburgh's main competition for him, so it's possible the Steelers would trade back into the first round to get him if he doesn't go to the Rams at No. 22.
18. Dallas – Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina Dallas is switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3, the opposite of the growing NFL trend. That puts the spotlight on the defensive line, which is shaky for a number of reasons.
Safety is also a possibility with Eric Reid, Matt Elam and Kenny Vaccaro all possibilities to complement a solid cornerback tandem. But the secondary was a prime focus for the Cowboys in last year's draft, so other needs are more pressing.
19. New York Giants – Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame This is by far the most difficult choice to predict. The Giants need a defensive end, but in this draft incarnation no end is worth being taken here. Linebacker is the biggest need, but with Alec Ogletree already gone there isn't an easy choice – not even when he is the Heisman Trophy runner-up. New York could also trade out of the spot with either Atlanta or San Francisco.
The Giants could just take the best player available, which would be Warmack, but that's taking a player they simply don't need. Cornerback or safety is option, because the Giants had a terrible secondary last year, but there is better value available in later rounds at that position. Te'o is a gamble, but he's one bad game and one nonexistent girlfriend away from being a consensus top 10 pick. Was the BCS national championship an outlier or a revelation? Before drafting Te'o, that question has to be answered.
20. Chicago – Chance Warmack, G, Alabama This would be a huge coup for the Bears. First off, they will be taking the best available player and filling a big need at the same time, all while taking Warmack at more than double his projection draft position.
If Warmack falls this far, he's a no-brainer. Other teams may even try to trade up for him if he starts slipping into the teens. Every year a player anticipated to go high falls considerably due to any number of factors. There aren't many teams with pressing needs on the offensive line and there are several offensive linemen worthy of high draft choices. If any of those top offensive linemen are available, the Bears will pick them. If not, Chicago could go for a defensive lineman, linebacker or a wide receiver.
21. Cincinnati – Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas Cincinnati did a lot of work in free agency, especially on defense, but there is still one hole at safety, and it's big. Vacarro would slide into the strong safety position easily if he is taken. The Bengals could also target Eric Reid or Matt Elam.
If a top offensive tackle starts getting passed over, Cincinnati could trade up to grab him and fill its other big need. If that happens, safety help will be sought in the second or third rounds. Another possibility is to grab an offensive playmaker, such as Cordarrelle Patterson or Eddie Lacy.
22. St. Louis (from Washington) – Eric Reid, S, LSU There really isn't a bad situation St. Louis can find itself in. The Rams' choice at No. 16 will be a big clue as to what they do here. If they go offense, this is a defensive choice. If their first pick is defensive, this one is offensive.
Should Reid, Vaccaro and Elam all be gone at this point, it would change things, but is highly unlikely. In that worst-case scenario, St. Louis might try to move back a few places and take Lacy, reach for another safety such as Jonathan Cyprien or take Tyler Eiffert at tight end.
23. Minnesota – Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee Minnesota is in a similar position to St. Louis – it has two selections and needs on both sides of the ball with several options. Conventional wisdom says two draft picks as close together as the Vikings' are mean one of them will be traded, but Minnesota has enough needs that keeping both first-round choices is the smarter move.
Going for offense is the easy decision, so it will likely be done first to give more time to mull defensive options. Minnesota needs a cornerback, too, but so does Indianapolis. That may force the Vikings' hand in taking one here and waiting for the receiver just to be safe.
24. Indianapolis – Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State Indianapolis doesn't have a second round pick, so if there isn't a player here they are content with, it shouldn't be a problem trading out of this position and stockpiling a few picks for later.
Cornerback is a need, but so is a pass rusher. The Colts could go after UCLA's Datone Jones or Florida State's Bjoern Werner to fill that need, grab an offensive lineman such as the Seminoles' Menalik Watson or, if a trade partner doesn't materialize, take a flier on a defensive tackle such as Ohio State's Jonathan Hankins or Georgia's John Jenkins.
25. Minnesota (from Seattle) – Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington If Rhodes is still available here, Minnesota will take him – and might even take him at No. 23. This is approaching the part of the draft where teams who either haven't picked yet or have high second round picks try to move up if they are set on one particular player or someone remains available long after he was thought to be taken.
Minnesota would be an easy trade partner at this point, because there are a handful of quality cornerbacks (and receivers if a corner is taken at No. 23) available that can be taken with the next 10-20 choices. The Vikings won't pick again until No. 52 so they have some flexibility.
26. Green Bay – John Jenkins, DT, Georgia The options Green Bay has are endless. Eddie Lacy would be a nice addition to an offense that has grown more and more one-dimensional in recent years, and Eiffert would provide yet another receiving option for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and help replace the departed Greg Jennings and the aging Jermichael Finley.
But offensive line and defensive line are the Packers' biggest needs. Safety Jonathan Cyprien is being projected to be taken with this pick by several people as well. There is plenty of value available on the offensive line later on, and Green Bay is likely content to wait until it picks again at No. 55 to take an O-lineman – potentially Alabama's Barrett Jones.
27. Houston – DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson Andre Johnson gets targeted by defenses a lot and he has noticed. He wants some help, and with plenty of talented receivers available, Houston will have no shortage of options. The Texans could also address their defense or take an offensive lineman.
Hopkins would be the first choice among all receivers in the draft for Houston, but he may not be available here. Patterson or Justin Hunter, both from Tennessee, would be solid options as well if Hopkins is gone. Addressing their other needs in later rounds will be a possibility, but not wide receiver.
28. Denver – Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State Denver is expected to take a running back within the first few rounds, but with its dominant passing game and backfield duo of Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, it isn't a pressing need.
Defensive line is a safer bet for the Broncos and two players from Florida State – Werner and Cornellius "Tank" Carradine – are the top options. Datone Jones would be another option as well, but it will likely come down to Werner and Carradine. Werner is athletic, quick and has more experience, making him less risky.
29. New England – Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee If any of the big names at defensive tackle fall to this position, New England would be interested. However, Wes Welker left New England in the offseason and that leaves the Patriots' with two injury-prone tight ends – although both are good when healthy – as their primary receiving threats.
It's not the "Belichick Way" to take risks on skill positions early, but Hunter isn't that big of a risk. He's been undervalued for a long time, and even in college was overshadowed by teammate Cordarrelle Patterson. Hunter is tall, fast and has good hands, but it is his crisp route-running and ability to be a deep threat as well as a Welker-esque catch-in-traffic receiver that gives him the versatility Belichick craves.
30. Atlanta – Datone Jones, DE, UCLA With the loss of John Abraham in the offseason, Atlanta will have to replace the longtime anchor of its defensive front. Atlanta also needs a cornerback, and could trade up to get one, perhaps to No. 19 for either Desmond Trufant or Xavier Rhodes.
If a trade doesn't happen, the Falcons have a difficult choice to make. There are some talented tight ends who would easily fit into the hole left by Tony Gonzalez if/when he retires, serving to take the pressure off Atlanta's dynamic receiver combo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. With Gonzalez's future in limbo, it might be too risky to take a tight end this high.
31. San Francisco – Jonathan Cyprien, S, FIU Let's do a little math. San Francisco has about seven spots on its roster to fill. San Francisco also has 13 draft picks, including seven in the first five rounds. The 49ers have the second pick of the second round and the next to last pick of the second round. It is an essential guarantee that they will be trading up higher into the first round, potentially as high as the top 10.
When that happens, the 49ers could be looking any number of directions, such as safety (Eric Reid?), defensive line (Barkevious Mingo or Star Lotulelei?) or offensive line (D.J. Fluker?). They're certain to grab a quarterback and running back at some point, as well as help at all the positions mentioned. San Francisco is the wild card of the draft and what they do could affect a dozen or so other picks in the first round. Eddie Lacy is also a potential option.
32. Baltimore – Kevin Minter, LB, LSU This draft is all about the linebacker position for the Ravens. Ray Lewis is gone and new acquisition Rolando McClain has a knack for running into the police, so the Ravens need a reliable option.
Wide receiver is another option, but there should be plenty of solid receiver choices available when the Ravens pick again at the end of the second round.
Three teams don't have a first round draft pick. Here's quick look at their plans.
Tampa Bay – The Buccaneers recently traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, giving up their No. 13 pick. They pick again at No. 43 in the second round and are likely to target tight end, running back and defensive tackle at some point.
Washington – The Redskins' first pick is at No. 53 and they need help on defense. They will likely be targeting linebacker and defensive back as early as possible as well as offensive line in later rounds.
Seattle – Nobody will wait as long to pick as Seattle, which won't get a player until the 56th selection, which is only six picks away from the second round being over. The Seahawks need upgrades at several positions, mostly on defense. Linebacker, cornerback and offensive line are primary areas of concern as well.
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