There’s a saying among NFL draft fans that goes, “If you can smell the apple pie sitting on the Thanksgiving table, it’s time to start your mock draft.” (No one has ever said this.)
Bad jokes aside, Thanksgiving is a good time to start thinking about the future if you’re an NFL fan. By this time, the college football season has revealed who will be some of the top players selected in next spring’s NFL draft, and this time of year also gives fans a good idea of which teams will need top talent in the draft the most.
Right now, the Cleveland Browns are our leadoff batters, with the San Diego Chargers sitting in the on-deck circle. But what’s interesting about this upcoming draft is that it’s realistic to think a quarterback won’t go in the top five.
Rather, it seems as though defensive linemen and linebackers will control the draft — and that bodes well for the SEC. In fact, I have the SEC claiming the top overall pick, with a few of his conference-mates following his lead. The Patriots don’t have a first-round pick because of Deflategate, but let’s take a look at the other 31 teams.
1. Cleveland Browns: 2-8 (.500 strength of schedule)
Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss
- If the Browns remain in the top spot, chances are the Johnny Manziel experiment failed. However, a quarterback from this class would be a reach at No. 1, even for a team that might need one. Nkemdiche needs some work with technique and when to use which moves as a pass rusher, but his potential is off the charts.
2. San Diego Chargers: 2-8 (.513 SOS)
Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
- The Chargers are in the bottom half of the league in both sacks allowed and quarterback hits allowed. Tunsil is the most NFL-ready player in the draft, and he fills a position San Diego desperately needs to improve.
3. Tennessee Titans: 2-8 (.519 SOS)
A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama
- The Titans have some nice pass rushers on the outside in Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo, but they need to bolster their interior pressure. Offensive tackle is also a need, but with Tunsil off the board, Robinson is the choice. He can play nose tackle or 3-tech defensive tackle right away.
4. Baltimore Ravens: 3-7 (.494 SOS)
Jalen Ramsey, S/CB, Florida State
- Baltimore needs help at safety and cornerback. Drafting a safety this early is rare, but Ramsey has the talent to justify the pick and has played cornerback at times for the Seminoles. There just isn’t a premier 3-4 pass rushing linebacker available to keep Baltimore away from Ramsey.
5. Detroit Lions: 3-7 (.519 SOS)
Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
- The Lions could go a variety of ways here, but after losing Ndamuking Suh in free agency, upgrading their interior pressure would make the entire defense better. Billings possesses insane strength and can single-handedly blow up plays.
6. San Francisco 49ers: 3-7 (.531 SOS)
Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis
- Draft fans may think this isn’t the year for quarterbacks in the top 10, but I think that perception comes from the position’s lack of depth, not the talent at the top. Lynch has an NFL arm to make all the throws. He can put velocity and placement on deep passes better than anyone in this class and his numbers at Memphis reflect that. I’m not convinced Lynch has No. 1 pick talent, but here at No. 6, look for the 49ers’ to have its eye scoped on filling its most important need.
7. Dallas Cowboys: 3-7 (.544 SOS)
Myles Jack, OLB, UCLA
- Dallas’ linebackers Sean Lee (injury) and Rolando McClain (free agent) have some uncertainty going into this offseason. Although Jack is also rehabbing from a knee injury that ended his season, when healthy he’s one of the top three players in the entire draft class. Always pick for talent.
8. Miami Dolphins: 4-6 (.481 SOS; 2-5 conference record)
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
- The Dolphins need an anchor in the middle of that linebacking corps. This is a stellar linebacker class with Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith, but make no mistake, Ragland deserves to be in the top-10 conversation.
9. Oakland Raiders: 4-6 (.481 SOS; 4-3 conference record)
Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
- Oakland could use a running back to compete with Latavius Murray, but if Hargreaves is still on the board, this is a no-brainer. He has lock-down corner potential for a defense that has needed one for a long time. Hargreaves has been banged up this year, but he’s a difference maker if he can stay healthy.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars: 4-6 (.487 SOS)
Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
- It’s hard to believe Bosa would fall to No. 10, but to the delight of Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, here he is. Bosa on one side and a healthy Dante Fowler Jr. — this year’s No. 3 pick missed his rookie season with an ACL tear — on the other will wreak havoc.
11. St. Louis Rams: 4-6 (.506 SOS; 3-4 conference record)
Josh Docton, WR, TCU
- I don’t think Nick Foles is the long-term answer at quarterback for the Rams, but I don’t think any of their wide receivers are building blocks either. With his size and body control, Doctson is an instant starter and red-zone target for St. Louis. His stuff can be Dez Bryant-esque.
12. Washington: 4-6 (.506 SOS; 4-3 conference record)
Kenny Clark, DT, UCLA
- Washington temporarily filled it’s need for interior pressure last offseason by signing Terrance Knighton, but only to a one-year deal. If it lets him walk, his spot becomes a top priority. Clark is becoming a hot name in the draft community, because of his strength when filling gaps. Like the other top defensive linemen in this class, he isn’t a perfect prospect, but his potential is high.
13. Chicago Bears: 4-6 (.513 SOS)
Noah Spence, OLB/DE, Eastern Kentucky
- In order for that Chicago 3-4 to work properly, it needs consistent outside pressure from the edge. Spence looked like a first-round pick at Ohio State, but he was dismissed from the team following a failed drug test. This season at Eastern Kentucky, he’s up to 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He’s also been handling his situation with responsibility and resilience, which might actually come to help him in the end. He’s still a top-20 talent.
14. Philadelphia Eagles: 4-6 (.525 SOS)
Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama
- The Eagles defense is a mess, and though they could stand to take a corner, without Hargreaves on the board, a pass rusher in Allen could be the next-best choice. If Philly loses Vinny Curry or Cedric Thornton in free agency, it’ll need someone who can at least be a solid rotation pass rusher. Allen is having a fantastic year for the Tide and his stock is soaring.
15. New Orleans Saints: 4-6 (.531 SOS)
Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
- White is quietly the next cornerback in line after Hargreaves, and the Saints have needed an outside corner for quite some time.
16. New York Jets: 5-5 (.474 SOS)
Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
- Stanley was pushed around a bit by Clemson’s Shaq Lawson a few weeks ago, which started to raise questions about how Stanley will handle power rushers in the NFL. However, there’s no doubt he’s still a very talented blocker.
17. Seattle Seahawks: 5-5 (.488 SOS)
Jonathan Bullard, DT, Florida
- Bullard is a personal favorite of mine — and not just because I’m a UF guy. He came into the season known as a good run defender and gap stuffer, but he’s shown that his talents can also be translated into pass rushing. Throw that onto his ability to play all four positions in a 4-3 defense and you have yourself Seattle’s next draft pick.
18. Kansas City Chiefs: 5-5 (.491 SOS)
Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State
- What’s limiting the Chiefs the most isn’t their offensive line, it’s Alex Smith. But, again, the quarterback class isn’t alluring this year and I don’t see the Chiefs using their first-round pick on Cook. If they can’t fix their quarterback position now, they might as well fix his protection for the future.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-5 (.500 SOS)
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
- Bucs fans should be ecstatic if Lawson falls this far. Lawson is one of the best bets among traditional 4-3 edge pass rushers. He’s an immediate starter for a defense that desperately needs pressure off the edge to be effective.
20. Houston Texans: 5-5 (.525 SOS)
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
- Cook’s value at No. 20 is worth the risk for a team like the Texans to take a chance. He’s doesn’t always make the best decisions, but I’m not sure there’s a quarterback available who makes NFL throws with more ease. His touch and velocity on passes can be picture perfect at times. You don’t pick a quarterback off the “give him his 10 best throws” drill, but when Cook is on point, you can see why some scouts are going to love his accuracy and control.
21. New York Giants: 5-5 (.506 SOS)
Darron Lee, OLB, Ohio State
- Southern California’s Su’a Cravens if often slotted here because of his potential to fill both a safety and a linebacker need. But the Giants already have that player on the roster in Landon Collins, and they’re not using him as effective as they could be. They need either a pure safety or a pure linebacker. Lee is the best option of those two.
22. Indianapolis Colts: 5-5 (.531 SOS)
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
- Frank Gore can’t live forever — or can he? Regardless of quarterback Andrew Luck’s struggles this season, he’s obviously the cornerstone. He still needs a running back who can be both reliable and dynamic. Elliot fits that bill. And if you ask whether his comments after the Michigan State game bother me, here’s my answer:
23. Buffalo Bills: 5-4 (.513 SOS)
Jaylon Smth, LB, Notre Dame
- If Smith actually lasts this long, it will take Buffalo 0.0001 seconds to hand in the card and plug him in as a starter.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: 6-4 (.497 SOS)
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
- I feel like we say this every year, but Pittsburgh has to start drafting talented defensive backs. Mackensie’s stock is trending up and he could be gone by pick No. 24, but he has to be high on Pittsburgh’s board.
25. Atlanta Falcons: 6-4 (.500 SOS)
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Tennessee
- It will be fun to read the comments on this one. Atlanta desperately needs a ball-hawking linebacker who can always be near a tackle, and I think their need for that kind of player is higher than an edge rushing linebacker. With Jack, Ragland and Smith all off the board, who’s the next player to fit that bill? Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He needs to work on his first step and controlling himself when he explodes to the ball in pursuit (he has a tendency to over pursue), but if he can slow the game down in his head, his athleticism, pursuit skills and tackling reliability validate late first-round value.
26. Green Bay Packers: 7-3 (.469 SOS)
Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama
- Is it possible we see three Alabama defensive linemen go in the first round? You better believe it is. It isn’t just because of their production, but also because of their knowledge of foundational NFL concepts. Robinson, Allen and Jarran Reed all know how to rush the passer with different moves, techniques and blitzes.
27. Minnesota Vikings: 7-3 (.488 SOS)
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
- I don’t think the gap between Treadwell and Doctson is this wide — I could see Treadwell being a top 10 pick — but with such a strong defensive class, it’s possible one or both drops in the first round. Treadwell deserves to be one of the top receivers taken (where that is) because of plays like this.
28. Cincinnati Bengals: 8-2 (.447 SOS)
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
- The Bengals are having enough success that, this pick has become somewhat of a luxury. With tight end Tyler Eifert emerging as a reliable receiving option in the middle of the field, a player with Coleman’s speed near the sideline opens the field up even more.
29. Arizona Cardinals: 8-2 (.450 SOS)
DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
- Despite the down year for the Ducks, Buckner’s stock remains first-round caliber. He’s a versatile defensive lineman who can play the end role in a 3-4 or a tackle role in a 4-3.
30. Denver Broncos: 8-2 (.478 SOS)
Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
- You won’t see too many mock drafts go away from Denver selecting an offensive lineman unless it does something drastic in free agency. The Peyton Manning era will be over after this season, so general manager John Elway better get Brock Osweiler as much protection as he can.
31. Carolina Panthers: 10-0 (.463 SOS)
Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
- Even if five wide receivers were selected before the Panthers’ pick, they’d still choose the next best pass catcher available. Thomas presents the Panthers with a true No. 1-type receiver on the outside who can do a variety of things, including embarrassing cornerbacks with moves like this: