Football friends, the darkest time of the sports calendar is officially upon us.
As we turn the final page of the 2015 football season, I must say congratulations to Peyton Manning and that incredible Denver Broncos defense for doing what I thought they couldn’t do in stopping Cam Newton and capturing a Super Bowl title.
Our next football holiday is the NFL combine, which is Feb. 23-29. But before we get there, let’s take a look at SEC Country’s first mock draft since both the college and professional football seasons have ended and see where we stand as combine week approaches.
In my previous 2016 NFL mock drafts, interior and edge pressure have been the focal points, but in this mock I tried to mix things up. While keeping the ratio of picks and talent realistic, I tried to ask ‘If the theme of the draft went a different way, what would it look like?’
In this mock, I recognize how elite the 2016 linebackers class is. Let’s see what pieces fall around them and how it could impact what your favorite team does when they’re on the clock.
1. Tennessee Titans: Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
Even in a mock draft where I’m trying to switch it up a bit, this pick is pretty obvious. The only other option I see here is if the Titans prefer Ronnie Stanley over Tunsil, which I doubt they do.
2. Cleveland Browns: Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
During the Senior Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff had a chance to coach Carson Wentz up close. I think they liked what they saw, but they seemed a bit too flamboyant with their affection for him, which makes me think it’s a bit of a smokescreen on their part.
So why am I talking about Dallas at Cleveland’s pick? Because I do think Dallas’ coaches got the ball rolling — if not rolling faster — for Wentz to be a top-5 pick this year. He has the size, arm talent and speaks with the kind of demeanor teams want from their franchise guy. In a league where you either have a quarterback or you’re rebuilding, a team that needs one has to take one. I think it’s realistic to see Wentz go here, even if his talent projection gives people doubts.
3. San Diego Chargers: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
As we saw in the Broncos’ Super Bowl win over the Carolina Panthers, pocket pressure is king. Joey Bosa isn’t going to be a pass-rusher who can bend around the edge like Von Miller, but he doesn’t have to be. Bosa won’t always put up the stats, but he’ll always eat up the blocks. I think he’s more of a 3-4 player than a 4-3 defensive end, hence why I’ve had him here for a while.
4. TRADE — San Francisco 49ers: Jared Goff, QB, Cal
(Dallas trades No. 4 to San Francisco for No. 7 and something else)
First trade! I enjoy throwing in trades when I can because it gives us another element of the “what if” factor in a mock draft. Here I again see the Cowboys working some manipulation. This all depends on what new San Francisco head coach Chip Kelly decides to do with the current quarterbacks on the team (Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick), but it’s very possible he will want to get his hands on a player he can mold to his liking. Dallas could sell to the 49ers that teams like the Los Angeles Rams or the Houston Texans are calling for the pick to draft a quarterback, and the price to move up from No. 7 to No. 4 to make sure the Niners got “their guy” wouldn’t be too much.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars: Noah Spence, EDGE, Eastern Kentucky
The Jaguars pass rush left a lot to be desired in terms of consistency this season. With defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. essentially a medical redshirt in his rookie season, the duo of Fowler and Spence could be deadly. We saw in the Super Bowl how two strong edge rushers can elevate an entire defense. I think the Jags will salivate at the chance of having that kind of disruption.
6. Baltimore Ravens: Jalen Ramsey, CB/S, Florida State
Uncharacteristically, the Ravens have a few holes on the defensive side of the ball that they really need to address, but in terms of talent available mixed with current need, Ramsey is the choice that would have the highest impact.
7. TRADE — Dallas Cowboys: Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
(Dallas trades No. 4 to San Francisco for No. 7 and what has now been determined to be a Publix Sub)
This pick is all based on the Cowboys being comfortable with Romo’s recovery (at least for another year), and them not being in love with any of the quarterback prospects in this class. If either of those are not true, they could go quarterback — either here or without the trade.
But what if both of those statements are true? If that is the case, I think they look at Ramsey and Myles Jack as their top two players and take a chance by trading down for an extra draft pick knowing one of them will still be there. With Ramsey off the board, Jack becomes the selection. His recovery is coming along nicely.
Exclusive look at Myles Jack post injury workouts. pic.twitter.com/KH7DnKEoAY
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 4, 2016
8. Miami Dolphins: Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
The Dolphins are thin at cornerback, and the two starters they have are 33 and 29 years old. Hargreaves may not have the body type to be an every-year pro bowl selection, but his rare athleticism and natural feel for the position still make him worthy of being the second defensive back taken.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
This one will be fun.
Before you immediately click out of the browser window, hear me out. Is a sub 6-foot wide receiver ever going to get picked in the top 10 in today’s NFL? Probably not, but let me paint a picture for you on how this pick isn’t as crazy as it seems.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht already said Tampa isn’t going to force a pick just because of a need. With that said, the Bucs’ offense really started to click at times with quarterback Jameis Winston and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who is now the head coach. Despite some success, an element that was seriously missing from that offense was a go-to, always open, quick-hit wide receiver who the team could turn to in order to move the chains. Sterling Shepard can be that guy.
With Vincent Jackson nearing the end of his career (and contract) in Tampa, and Mike Evans struggling on the outside as the lone option, plugging in a guy like Shepard could give Koetter a Julian Edelman-like player in the slot who can pick up those third-and-3 plays, or always start drives with a nice 5- or 6-yard catch. Those are plays that no one remembers or focuses on, but they’re also the reason the Patriots offense is what it is.
People use the phrase, “it’s a deep wide receiver class” to downplay unique talent. There’s no receiver in this year’s batch who can do what Shepard does with separation, dependability and quickness. If the Bucs bring in Shepard, he becomes that Edelman-type in the slot for at least one year, then could move outside temporarily or permanently if Jackson hangs it up after next season. Whether they get him here or possibly in the second around, Shepard should be very high on Tampa’s big board. Make picks that make your team better. Be one step ahead.
10. New York Giants: Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama
The Giants have linebacker needs inside and out, so why not take the best pure linebacker in the class? Ragland can be an anchor at middle linebacker, or move well on the outside as a powerful outside linebacker. He can be whatever the Giants need him to be.
11. Chicago Bears: Jaylon Smith, ILB, Notre Dame
It’s been reported that Jaylon Smith’s injury in the Fiesta Bowl is not as serious as it once seemed. If the possibility of him being fully healthy at some point in 2016 is real, so is the justification of taking him in the top 10. Chicago could get a steal.
12. New Orleans Saints: Darron Lee, OLB, Ohio State
Rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony was solid as a middle linebacker for the Saints last season, but they really need an athletic outside linebacker to utilize in pass-rush situations and more importantly in coverage. Lee is a raw player, but he’s shown flashes in his two years as a starter for Ohio State to really be a guy who can do it all as a 4-3 outside linebacker.
13. Philadelphia Eagles: Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
Despite signing Lane Johnson to a big extension, if Stanley happens to fall this far, you have to think the Eagles would take him, especially with Ramsey and Hargreaves gone. This pick also depends on what they do with their defensive line in free agency.
14. Oakland Raiders: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
I’ve been trying to get Ezekiel Elliott in my top 10 for a while because his talent is not talked about enough, but it’s hard when he plays, I hate to say this, a luxury position (not QB, O-Line or D-Line). Wherever Zeke goes, he’ll be sure to make his impact very soon. He’s fantastic at every facet of the position. Oakland wins the sweepstakes in this mock.
15. Los Angeles Rams: Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis
New city, new me.
Nick Foles isn’t the longterm guy for the Rams, and I think everyone knows it. Lynch gives head coach Jeff Fisher a powerful arm he hasn’t had in a long time. Not even Fisher — who somehow keeps getting contract extensions — can coach forever without a franchise quarterback.
16. Detroit Lions: Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
With Calvin Johnson calling it quits (*cries*), Detroit is under even more pressure to bring some consistency to that offense. I think they can fill their defensive needs such as an extra pass rusher in free agency and can have their choice of a few great pass catchers in the draft to try to replace part of impact of Megatron leaves.
17. Atlanta Falcons: Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
It’s either linebacker or pass rusher for the Falcons. Linebacker is their bigger need, and the linebacker class is very good, but by pick No. 17, the top four linebackers are already off the board here. If that’s the case, there will be one or two very solid pass rushers who have fallen in the draft. They snatch one up here.
18. Indianapolis Colts: Cody Whitehair, OL, Kansas State
There is no other need for the Colts in the first round. Cody Whitehair, Jason Spriggs, Taylor Decker; take your pick.
19. Buffalo Bills: DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon
Most mock drafts have the Bill taking Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche or Alabama’s Jarran Reed with this pick, but here Rex Ryan gets a treat with Buckner falling all the way to No. 19. In most scenarios, this doesn’t happen — Buckner is a top-10 talent — but in a mock where four of the top 12 picks are linebackers, teams are opting for pass rushers in free agency and playmakers in the draft. As we see who will become the winners and losers of free agency, that will give us a better feel for where a player like Buckner will go. For now, it’s here, and it would be fun for everyone not in the AFC East.
20. New York Jets: Leonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia
In order for the Jets’ 3-4 defense to be effective, they have to have good linebacker play, particularly from their outside linebackers who bring pressure off the edge. Demario Davis and Calvin Pace are set to become free agents plus inside linebacker David Harris is 32 years old. Floyd would make it the fifth linebacker in the top 20.
21. Washington: Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
Even if Washington can pen another deal with nose tackle Terrance Knighton, the other interior linemen are getting up there in age. Jason Hatcher is 33 years old and Chris Baker is 29. Billings has the size, strength and athleticism to play NT or DT in a 3-4 defense. He fills any hole they need.
22. Houston Texans: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
This pick reveals my internal struggle when writing mock drafts. Reports show the interest to reunite Texans head coach Bill O’Brien with incoming quarterback Christian Hackenberg is realistic, but for my sanity’s sake, I cannot put Christian Hackenberg in the first round — not after what I’ve watched for the last two years. Is the mentality of freshman year Hackenberg still there? Maybe. But there’s no logic in justifying a first-round selection with, “go watch this tape from him two years ago” as the best you’ve got.
Cook isn’t a perfect quarterback prospect, but he has a better feel for the football than any quarterback in this class. The only reason he’s this low is because of his reputation as a bad locker room guy. I can’t judge the character of someone I’ve never met, but again, this pick is a manifestation of my internal struggle to mock from what I think will happen and what I think should happen. If you ask me, Cook should go higher.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Josh Doctson, WR, TCU
I think Doctson’s talent is being overshadowed by what I like to call Draft Twitter’s flavor of the month. Ending the season with a wrist injury that kept him out of the last few games seems to have put him on the back burner. But that ends here!
I went through a series of Vines earlier this week that showed Doctson as the complete package. I also noted that when comparing him against other receivers in the class, people often confuse Doctson’s relaxed style as a weakness when observing it with a more twitchy, violent style of going after the ball (such as Treadwell). Don’t do this. Don’t fall for the optical illusion. Doctson is very good.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Cash, S/OLB, Duke
I bet you haven’t seen Jeremy Cash in the first round in a while. This is another pick, like the Shepard one for Tampa, that just makes sense in too many ways for me not to give it note in a meaningless mock draft.
Both of the Bengals starting safeties and all three of their backup linebackers are not under contract heading to free agency — not to mention starting linebacker Vontaze Burfict will be suspended to start the season. Some of those guys will be retained, but I’m sure not all of them will be. Drafting Cash could help them fill any of those needs.
Where most people would mock USC’s S/LB Su’a Cravens in a situation like this, I chose Cash because of his high football IQ and his pronounced leadership abilities, something Cincinnati desperately needs on defense. The Bengals are one of the most athletic defenses in the league, but they need a guy who isn’t Burfict to anchor their emotions. Cash could very well be that player in the next two-three years. Versatile on the field at both positions of need, and a football mind they don’t have on the depth chart.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers: Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
The Steelers have needed cornerback help for a long time now, and with Troy Polamalu no longer on the depth chart, it’s becoming harder and harder to mask. Alexander fits the mold of a “Steelers defensive player” perfectly. This would be an ideal match.
26. Seattle Seahawks: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State
Seattle’s offensive line was shaky for extended periods of time this season, and the Seahawks could lose their left tackle Russell Okung to free agency. That should be plenty of reason to address the offensive line with their first pick.
27. Green Bay Packers: Robert Nkemdiche, DT/DE, Ole Miss
Robert Nkemdiche will have his work cut out for him during the interview sessions of the draft process. Some teams will bail on him in the first round, but with Green Bay looking to get younger on the interior and on the edge, taking a chance on Nkemdiche’s talent would be worth the pick for both parties.
28. Kansas City Chiefs: Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
Alex Smith will never be elite. There, I said it. With that truth out in the open, Kansas City better do all they can to bolster his supporting cast if they want to make the most of their current playoff roster. Thomas and Treadwell are the ideal types of complements to Travis Kelce’s dependability over the middle and Jeremy Maclin’s blazing speed. With Treadwell gone, they should grab Thomas and not think twice.
29. Arizona Cardinals: Jonathan Bullard, DE/DT, Florida
If it weren’t for getting severely caught off guard by a red-hot Carolina team, the Cardinals had the roster talent to make their case for the Super Bowl title. This is a luxury pick for the Arizona who can plug Bullard into any spot on the line.
30. Carolina Panthers: Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
After watching that Super Bowl, you can’t help but be impressed with Denver’s defense. They made a fantastic offensive line look average, made a top-notch rushing attack look ineffective and limited the league’s MVP more than any other team had in 2015.
Getting Kelvin Benjamin back next year will help, but the Panthers might as well go all out to help Newton’s passing attack. The Panthers already utilize how Tedd Ginn and Corey Brown can attack the field vertically. Coleman can do the same and more. Add him to the mix with those two, Benjamin and Greg Olsen and you have one of the best receiving corps. in the NFL.
31. Denver Broncos: Jason Spriggs, OT, Indiana
What a year for Denver. We haven’t seen a team win a championship with that poor of quarterback play during the season since what, Eli Manning in 2007? (I’ll probably get crap for that.)
Regardless, with Peyton Manning hopefully riding off into the sunset and Brock Osweiler heading into free agency, will they be looking for a fresh new quarterback entirely? My gut says no and that Osweiler will resign. If that’s the case, keeping his jersey as clean as possible will go a long way to a playoff run next season and defending the title without The Sheriff.