NFL Preview: AFC East

 

1. New England Patriots                                  Projected Record: 14-2

This New England dynasty should conceivably come to an end sometime soon, Tom Brady is 41 and the offense has an embarrassing lack of weapons, but 2018 doesn’t seem to be the year. Due in large part to a pathetic division and surprisingly easy schedule, the Patriots will once again cruise to an AFC East title and a first round playoff bye. The wide receiver corps is thin, but there’s enough collective talent between Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson and twelve games of Julian Edelman to be elevated to competent by the Brady/Belichick regime. The running game also poses a huge question for the Patriots, with Rex Burkhead slotted to be New England’s starting running back. James White and rookie Sony Michel make up the rest of the Patriots running back committee, but both easily usurp the starting job from Burkhead. On the defensive side of the ball, Trey Flowers is a commanding presence off the edge and Devin McCourty remains one of the leagues top safeties. The return of middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower should help shore up an overall porous run defense. The Patriots certainly have their flaws, but nothing drastic enough to prevent them from claiming their sixth straight AFC East crown.

2. New York Jets                                                Projected Record: 5-11

For the first time in a while, there seems to be a real sense of optimism surrounding the New York Jets. The defense has collected a handful of incredibly talented young cornerstones, and Sam Darnold looks to be the quarterback of the future. This season is certainly a rebuilding year, but both the offense and defense should show flashes of what they may one day become. A pair of former top ten picks lead this defense, one from the defensive line and the other from the secondary. Leonard Williams has excelled from his first snap in Green and White, and should join the ranks of elite interior defensive lineman within the next few seasons. Jamal Adams looks primed to build off an up and down rookie season, and has the talent and drive to blossom into one of the league’s premier young talents at the safety position. On offense, all eyes will be on Darnold. His progression will almost singlehandedly determine the Jets faith, and a strong season from the rookie could propel New York to a winning record and possibly even a playoff berth.

3. Miami Dolphins                                            Projected Record: 4-12

It’s usually an ill-advised idea to kick both your best offensive and defensive players to the curb, but that’s exactly what the Miami Dolphins did this offseason. With the departures of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and wide receiver Jarvis Landry, the Dolphins are seriously lacking for talent on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill returns under center, but the rest of the offense is replacement-level talent. Kenyan Drake is an electric force out of the backfield, but the signing of Frank Gore indicates Drake may not be the workhouse one might expect. Their wide receiving corps is largely uninspiring, with the signing of Danny Amendola quickly proving to be one of the more puzzling of the offseason. On the defensive side of the ball, the secondary is a bright spot on a mostly barren unit. Cornerback Xavien Howard is a rising star, and the safety duo of Reshead Jones and rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick should be a top ten pairing. Besides that though, impactful players on the defense are few and far between. Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake are each competent pass rushers in their own right, but there are serious questions about their production in their age 28 and 36 seasons respectively.  Overall, this roster projects to be one of the worst in the league as coach Adam Gase begins the total rebuild.

4. Buffalo Bills                                                   Projected Record: 3-13

After a surprise playoff berth last season, the Buffalo Bills traded away their starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor and replaced him with rookie Josh Allen. Allen, who has yet to finish a season at any level with a completion percentage above 60%, inherits one of the league’s worst offensive lines, a decrepit receiving corps, and an aging running back who  finds himself in legal trouble. While Nathan Peterman will get the start week one, it shouldn’t be long before Allen is under center. Add in a brutal slate of defenses thanks to a second place finish last season, and this Bills offense has a chance to be historically bad. Defensively, the Bills have much more talent than typically found on 3-13 teams. Micah Hyde and Tre’Davious White are two Pro Bowl caliber players manning the safety and cornerback spots respectively, while Jerry Hughes, ageless wonder Kyle Williams and free agent acquisition Star Lotulelei provide stability up front. Tremaine Edmunds, the second of the team’s two first round draft picks, is an absolute stud and will begin the season as Buffalo’s starting middle linebacker. This defense should keep them in games, but there’s only so much they’ll be able to do. Strap in Bills fans, this season should be a rough one.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers                                      Projected Record: 11-5

The Pittsburgh Steelers remain the class of the AFC North as they look for their third division title in four years. Lead by All-Pros Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, this offense should once again be a dynamic force. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has shown serious signs of decline, but has been buoyed by the brilliance of the skill position players around him. His decision making and accuracy are sorely lacking, and the years of Roethlisberger as an elite QB may be over. Regardless, the Steelers still have one of the league’s best infrastructures, and their offense should survive as they pursue another championship. In the same vein, the absence of Le’Veon Bell may not be as crippling as one might think. It is unclear at the current juncture how long Bell plans on sitting out, but in his place rookie James Conner can fill in admirably. He will obviously not match Bell’s production, but if he were to contribute 80% of what Bell does the Steelers could more or less run the same offense they would if Bell were there. On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh has serious question marks all over the field. The defensive line remains anchored by Cameron Heyward, but the linebackers corp has a serious hole to fill with the injury to middle linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers are relying on steady production from cornerback Joe Haden, who is slotted to be Pittsburgh’s number one corner to start the season. Haden was solid in his first season with the black and yellow, but will need to return to his once dominant form for this Steeler defense to reach its full potential. This is far from Mike Tomlin’s most talented team in his tenure with the Steelers, but it should be enough to carry Pittsburgh to another division title and a shot at another Lombardi trophy.

2. Baltimore Ravens                                      Projected Record: 8-8

The Baltimore Ravens remain one of the league’s most frustrating franchises as they posses a dominant defense capable of swinging games but also, Joe Flacco. This team has the talent to make a playoff run in the weak AFC, but has a cap on their overall ability thanks to the talents, or lack thereof, of their strong armed quarterback. To further compound the problem, the Ravens front office has failed to surround Flacco with any sort of weapons. John Brown is their most talented receiver, which in itself speaks volumes, and Alex Collins is a league average back at best. Baltimore’s best chance at success this season is keeping the score low and relying on the power of their defense. Baltimore’s defense is one of the most well-rounded in the league, with difference makers littered all across the unit. Jimmy Smith is one of the league’s most underrated talent at the cornerback position in the league, while Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson form a fearsome safety pairing. CJ Mosely remains one of the top linebackers in the league as he captains this Ravens defense, while Michael Pierce wreaks havoc in the middle of the defensive line. This Baltimore team has loads of talent, it just all happens to reside on the defensive side of the ball. If their offense can get out of their own way, look for the Ravens to be in the wild card hunt come playoff time.

3. Cleveland Browns                               Projected Record: 5-11

For most teams, a five win season and a third place finish in the division would be a massive disappointment. But, for a Cleveland Browns organization that has won one game over the last two seasons, those results would practically trigger a parade down the streets of Cleveland. A sense of optimism has swept Cleveland as they have brought in an exciting collection of talent. Tyrod Taylor, the Browns new starting quarterback, spent last season dragging a hapless Buffalo Bills squad to the playoffs only to be kicked to the curb. Jarvis Landry is one of the league’s preeminent pass catchers, and was acquired for the bargain price of a fourth round pick. Finally, the team’s most exciting offseason acquisition was number one overall pick Baker Mayfield. Their quarterback of the future impressed in limited snaps this preseason, and will likely see the field at some point this season. Cleveland has placed a higher priority on surrounding whoever’s under center with plenty of weapons, and now boast an enticing roster including Landry, tight end David Njoku, and running back Carlos Hyde to name a few. Defensively, there is still work to be done but the pieces are slowly coming together. Pass rusher Myles Garrett looked absolutely dominant in his shortened rookie season, and he should pick up right where he left off in his second year. EJ Gaines and Damarious Randall are two intriguing defensive backs who should take big steps forward in 2018, while linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins Sr. need to prove they can stick in this league. While there are still a multitude of questions surrounding the Browns, this year should be a big step in their rebuilding process.

4. Cincinnati Bengals                                 Projected Record: 4-12

The most awe-inspiring fact about the NFL in 2018 is that Marvin Lewis is still the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. After years and years of heartbreak and playoff buffoonery, you would’ve thought it was time for the Bengals to find a new head coach. But no, Cincinnati instead chose to once again place their faith in the man with the 0-7 career postseason record. Lewis will look to command a team lacking in talent on both sides of the ball. The wide receiving corps of AJ Green, John Ross and Tyler Boyd is teeming with talent, but the Bengals lack the quarterback to fully unlock all of their skills. Running back Joe Mixon also impressed in his rookie season, but faces a difficult road ahead behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. The additions of left tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price should provide some legitimacy, but they won’t be enough to transform the troublesome unit. The defense has typically been strong under Lewis, but this year may prove to be the exception. Besides defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals defense lacks proven difference makers and instead includes a bevy of unproven commodities. Jessie Bates III is slotted to be the teams starting free safety as a rookie, while Preston Brown is poised for another strong year after departing from Buffalo. All in all this team has more questions than answers, and should be primed for a disappointing season.

 

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NFL Preview: NFC East

 

1. Philadelphia Eagles                                          Projected Record: 12-4

The city of Philadelphia has yet to stop celebrating since the Eagles captured their first ever Super Bowl last February, and there’s no reason to stop the party this season. Even with the inevitable Super Bowl hangover, this Eagles roster is deep enough and talented enough to muster their way to double digit wins and another playoff berth. Quarterback Carson Wentz has yet to fully recover from tearing both his ACL and LCL, but once he’s back on the field all signs point to him picking up right where he left off. Save for tight end Zach Ertz, none of the skill position players Philadelphia’s front office has surrounded Wentz with would be considered elite for their position. Their collection of wide receivers and runnings are all league average or better, and make up for what they lack in star power with an abundance of depth. Wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery form an intriguing pass catching platoon, while running backs Corey Clement, Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi must all split time and carries lining up behind Wentz. On defense, the Eagles have an absolute embarrassment of riches. Defensive lineman Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Michael Bennett, Derek Barnett, Haloti Ngata, and Chris Long are all above average starters, yet they have all teamed up to form one of the greatest pass rushing rotations the league has ever seen. Philadelphia’s secondary was a strength in their road to Super Bowl 52, and while the departure of cornerback Patrick Robinson will certainly be felt the Eagles have enough talent to make due without him. Safety Malcom Jenkins remains one of the leagues best at his position, and corners Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby will need to have big seasons to recreate their success from last season. In total, Philadelphia has an incredibly exciting roster and one of the league’s easiest paths to the playoffs, two surefire ways to make sure any Super Bowl hopeful must pass through the champs first.

2. New York Giants                                                 Projected Record: 6-10

The New York Giants decision to pass on their quarterback of the future with the number two overall pick, and instead opt for a running back sent shockwaves through the draft and speaks volumes to the teams short and long term plans. The pairing of running back Saquon Barkley and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was clearly just too enticing for the Giants to pass up. Both players are supreme level athletes capable of pulling off game altering plays anytime they get the ball in their hands. Add in wide receiver Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram, and New York sneakily has one of the league’s top five skill position groups. The problems lie within the rest of their offense. Tackle Nate Solder was brought in to shore up quarterback Eli Manning’s blind spot, while rookie guard Will Hernandez is expected to start from day one. The rest of the Giants offensive line is questionable at best, with tackle Ereck Flowers proving last season that he probably shouldn’t have a job in this league. Poor offensive line play may be a death sentence for Manning, who at 37 can not afford to take too many big hits. As simple as it sounds, much of New York’s offensive game plan this year will be getting it in the hands of their playmakers as quickly as possible. Defensively, the Giants will rely heavily on sacks and turnovers to make up for their overall lack of talent. Safety Landon Collins is the only bonafide stud on the unit, as he is surrounded by players ranging in ability from slightly above average to bottom tier of the league. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple are two enticing yet mercurial talents that could make or break New York’s defense if they both bounce back from disappointing seasons. Pass rusher Olivier Vernon is another veteran player who must return to form if New York has serious playoff aspirations. Overall, the playoffs are not out of the question for the Giants, but everything must go perfectly if they want another shot at a Super Bowl.

3. Dallas Cowboys                                                  Projected Record: 5-11

Things are not looking up for America’s team as a bevy of offseason injuries have depleted even their deepest units. Everything starts and ends for the Dallas Cowboys with running back Ezekiel Elliott. He is expected to almost singlehandedly carry this Cowboys offense, which is fantastic news for his fantasy owners but not exactly a great recipe for winning football games. Elliott is naturally very talented, but a good portion of his success these past two seasons have been directed linked to the play of his line. When healthy, Dallas boasts one of the leagues most fearsome and dominant offensive lines, capable of clearing ungodly sized holes for Zeke to run through. Sadly, it appears the Cowboys offensive line may never reach these heights again, as center Travis Frederick is out indefinitely with an autoimmune disorder. Their line still possesses three above average starters, with tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zach Martin each grading as one of the leagues best at their positions, but the unit that lead Elliott to over 1,600 yards as a rookie is no longer present. Without a dominant season from Elliott, Dallas’s offense quickly becomes one of the leagues more pedestrian and lackluster units. Quarterback Dak Prescott has yet to reach the heights he accomplished as a rookie, and the Cowboys front office has done him no favors in terms of wide receiver help. The team’s number one pass catcher heading in to the year is Allen Hurns, and the team is relying big on free agent acquisition Tavon Austin to provide a spark for an otherwise mundane offense. Incredibly, the defense inspires even less confidence than the offense. Demarcus Lawerence is a commanding presence off the edge, but he will likely be the only Cowboy able to apply consistent pressure. Their linebacking corps is probably the bright spot of the defense, with exciting second year prospect Jaylon Smith and first round pick Leighton Vander Esch teaming up with veteran Sean Lee to provide a level of competency to Dallas’s front seven. The most concerning area of the Cowboys defense is the secondary, where they will likely start rookie cornerback Chidobe Awuzie opposite last season’s starting free safety Byron Jones. On team’s with Super Bowl aspirations, these two would be intriguing rotational pieces and not thrust into a starting role. Long term both Awuzie and Jones should be above average players, but this year they just  have too much being asked of them. All in all, this season should be a long one for the Cowboys and hopefully the last for Jason Garrett as head coach.

4. Washington                                                         Projected Record: 5-11

The Washington football team has made a bevy of interesting acquisitions this offseason, most notably trading for quarterback Alex Smith, but still face a massive gap in talent between them and the upper echelon of the NFC. The injury to rookie running back Derrius Guice delays what could’ve been a rejuvenation for one of the league’s worst rushing attacks last season. Instead, the team will push forward with a committee of Adrian Peterson, Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine, none of which are striking fear into the hearts of opposing defenses. The other skill position players on Washington are equally pedestrian, with free agent acquisition Paul Richardson likely the team’s number one option come week one. The unimpressive options around him have only placed more pressure on Smith, as the world anxiously awaits too see just how productive he can be without the weapons and coaching of Kansas City. On the other side of the ball, its a very similar story for Washington. Cornerback Josh Norman’s reputation may actually be more intimidating than his play on the field, as his days as an elite NFL corner may already be over. Ryan Kerrigan and Josh Allen form an intriguing pass rush off the edge, but neither possess the star power to truly alter the outcome of games. In total this Washington team will likely grind out enough wins to keep them out of the bottom five, but nowhere near playoff contention.

Draft Grades: AFC West

Fewer divisions are as historically competitive as the AFC West, and 2018 promises to be much of the same. Each team likely thinks they won the draft, but which teams actually improved and who missed their golden chance?

DENVER BRONCOS: A-

1 (5) Bradley Chubb, Edge, NC State
2 (40) Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
3 (71) Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon,
3 (99) Isaac Yiadom, CB, Boston College
4 (106) Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa
4 (113) DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Penn State
5 (156) Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin
6 (183) Sam Jones, G, Arizona State
6 (217) Keishawn Bierria, LB, Washington
7 (226) David Williams, RB, Arkansas

Post draft reports indicate the Denver Broncos were fully prepared to send the number five overall pick to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a bevy of selections, but called off the trade when defensive end Bradley Chubb became available. The pairing of Chubb and fellow top five pick Von Miller should scare opposing pass rushes for seasons to come, and he has the potential to re-energize a new look Denver defense. Chubb is the crown jewel of an excellent draft class, highlighted by great value throughout the later rounds. Courtland Sutton is a big bodied receiver who projects as an elite red zone threat. He is an excellent athlete with an incredible catch radius, but doesn’t have the quickest feet or run the crispest route. Royce Freeman is a versatile running back who should slide into the starting position from day one. He shined in the up tempo Oregon offense, but his ability in both the running and passing game should make him an impact weapon early in his career. Josey Jewell is a hard-nosed, instinctive linebacker who excels in coverage but lacks the elite athleticism to become anything more than an average starter. He was the Big 10 defensive player of the year, and the reasons for his fall in the draft (age, lack of athleticism, not flashy) may look dumb very quickly. Troy Fumagalli is an threat in the passing game, and his draft stock fell hard after he failed to participate at both the combine and the pro day. His athleticism and ball skills were not truly allowed to flourish in the ground and pound Wisconsin offense, but he has a similar profile to other pass catching tight ends in this class and came at a much lower price. Overall, John Elway landed a deep and talented draft class that should contribute early and often.

Hear more about the Denver Broncos draft class on Sideline Intel’s Two Kids in a Trechcoat: A Football Podcast. 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: B

1 (17) Derwin James, S, Florida State
2 (48) Uchenna Nwosu, Edge, US
3 (84) Justin Jones, DL, NC State
4 (119) Kyzir White, S, West Virginia
5 (155) Scott Quessenberry, C, UCLA
6 (191) Dylan Cantrell, WR, Texas Tech
7 (251) Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

Derwin James is probably the steal of the draft, and is a once-in-a-draft type of talent that is typically gone by pick seventeen. James was not, and will he instantly become an important contributor for a Charger defense brimming with talent. Los Angeles’s run defense was atrocious last season, giving up the second most total yards on the ground and the highest average yards per carry in the league. On early downs, James will likely patrol the middle of the box and attack holes in the run game. On later downs, James has the ability to drop into more a traditional safety role and make an impact in the passing game. A secondary composed of Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett, and Trevor Williams at corner plus James, Desmond King, Jahleel Addae and fourth round pick Kyzir White at safety adds up to one of the most talented secondaries in the entire league. The later rounds were defined by scheme rather than overall talent, as it was clear general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Anthony Lynn prioritized fit over best available. Linebacker Uchenna Nwosu played edge in his final season at USC, but with the Chargers he will likely be used as a move outside linebacker. In a role currently occupied by linebacker Kyle Emmanuel, Nwosu will patrol the middle of the defense alongside middle linebacker Denzel Perryman. He will initially be used as a rotational linebacker on early downs to try and improve the porous LA run defense, but must improve in coverage if he wants to evolve into a true every down linebacker. Defensive lineman Justin Jones was the only dud of the draft, and while the need was clear for a pass rushing presence in the middle of the defensive line there were much better prospects available (see Hurst, Maurice). Jones shows a quick first step, but his secondary moves leave much to be desired. He played alongside fellow draft picks Bradley Chubb and B.J. Hill in his time at NC State, and rarely faced the full force of the opposition. At his best, Jones could be an exciting contributor on a talented defensive line that once again benefits from elite talent around him. At his worst, his relatively average athleticism only carries him so far, and he fails to gain a foothold in the league. Kyzir White, safety out of West Virginia was Los Angeles’s fourth round pick, and another effort by the Chargers front office to address their inability to stop the run. White is a strong, physical presence at the safety position, and he will likely play a role more similar to linebacker than safety in the NFL. White isn’t quite fast enough to match up with opposing wide receivers, but has the coverage skills and quickness to blanket opposing running backs and tight ends. White also doesn’t shy away from contact, and will make his presence felt in the run game on later downs. To round out the draft, Los Angeles added depth to their chronically injured offensive line, as Scott Quessenberry can slide into any interior offensive line position. Dylan Cantrell is one of the best athletes in the draft, running a 4.59 forty with a 39 inch vertical and a 130 inch broad jump. Scouts doubted his ability to produce outside of Texas Tech’s high octane offense. Finally, running back Justin Jackson should instantly slot in behind incumbent Melvin Gordon, and see little play time as a rookie. Overall the Chargers left a lot of talent on the board, but took the best available when it mattered. Most of this draft was average, but the selection of Derwin James solidifies its status in Chargers history.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: B-

2 (46) Breeland Speaks, Edge, Ole Miss
3 (75) Derrick Nnadi, DL, Florida State
3 (100) Dorian O’Daniel, LB, Clemson
4 (124) Armani Watts, S, Texas A&M
6 (196) Tremon Smith, CB, Central Arkansas
6 (198) Khalil McKenzie, Edge, Tennessee

The Kansas City Chiefs were without their first round pick thanks to the Patrick Mahomes trade from last year, but made their best attempts at retooling their defense. All six of their selections were spent on defensive players, beginning Ole Miss defensive lineman Breeland Speaks. Speaks can play a variety of positions along the defensive end, but will contribute early as a pass rushing edge opposite Chris Jones. He has all the athletic tools necessary to rack up double digit sacks early in his career, but needs to develop a wider array of moves if he is to reach his max potential. Derrick Nnadi provides an intimidating and stout presence in the middle of the Chief defense, and an immediate replacement for current starter Xavier Williams. Nnadi will likely never make much of an impact as a pass rusher, but against the run there were fewer better in this years draft. Dorian O’Daniel has a limited skillset, but the things he did well in college should translate well at the next level. O’Daniel is exceptional in coverage, and should contribute in later downs as a smaller sub packages. At 6’1 and 223 pounds, O’Daniel will likely never be an impact force in the run game, but his ability in coverage and his excellence in special teams more than solidifies his spot on an NFL roster. Armani Watts is an above average athlete at the safety position, and has the speed and fluidity to control the deepest areas of the field. At 5’11, Watts is a little undersized but his 35 inch vertical more than compensates. He tends to shy away from contact, but if Watts can lock down the deep passing game next to superstar Eric Berry, Watts can more than exceed the expectations of a fourth round selection. With the first of their two sixth round picks, the Chiefs dipped into the FCS to take cornerback Tremon Smith. Smith is an impressive athlete, and he dominated against the lower levels of competition. The former high school standout at quarterback, Smith has a nose for the ball rarely seen at the position. If he makes Kansas City’s opening day roster, it will likely be because of his ability to produce in special teams. The same goes for Reginald Khalil Mckenzie, son of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie Mckenzie and former five star prospect. While he never quite lived up to the hype at Tennessee, Mckenzie offers tantalizing upside as a pass rushing presence off the edge. All in all, Kansas City had an average draft, but lacked the impact prospect that typically accompanies a first round pick. Considering the situations, a pretty solid draft for the new look Chiefs.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: C+

1 (15) Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA,
2 (57) P.J. Hall, Edge, Sam Houston State
3 (65) Brandon Parker, OT, North Carolina A&T
3 (87) Arden Key, Edge, LSU
4 (110) Nick Nelson, CB, Wisconsin
5 (140) Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan
5 (173) Johnny Townsend, P, Florida
6 (216) Azeem Victor, LB, Washington
7 (228) Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State

The Oakland Raiders were in prime position to alter the course of this draft. With the tenth overall selection, the Raiders had the option of either trading the pick to the highest bidder or selecting a game changing talent for their ailing defense. Oakland selected the former, but only obtained an additional third and fifth round picks for moving back five spots. The Green Bay Packers, albeit moving a far more substantial fourteen picks back, were able to squeeze a future first round pick out of the New Orleans Saints. Nevertheless, the Raiders acquired two additional picks and now had the fifteenth pick. Instead of addressing their many holes on the defensive side of the ball and drafting the many exceptional prospects available (Tremaine Edmunds, Derwin James, Josh Jackson, Harold Landry) Oakland decided to focus on a different area with the selection of offensive tackle Kolton Miller. Miller stands at an intimidating 6’9, and possesses many of the natural gifts needed to succeed at the tackle position. He lacks though much of the technical precision necessary to combat the most disruptive of pass rushers, and his consistency wavered in his time at college. In stretches during his final season, Miller looked dominant as he protected fellow first round pick Josh Rosen’s blindside. But, there was times throughout his three seasons at UCLA Miller looked lost out on the field, and overmatched against future NFL players. His ceiling may be higher than any other tackle prospect in the draft, but his floor is certainly lower than most other players taken in the first three rounds. Despite a disappointing first day, the Raiders rebounded nicely with a solid group of selections. P.J. Hall was utterly dominant in his time with the FCS, using his unique blend of speed and power to overwhelm inferior competition. Across his four years with Sam Houston State, Hall racked up 42 sacks and 86.5 tackles for loss. It is safe to say his incredible production won’t be exactly replicated in the NFL, but scouts see the potential for Hall to contribute double digit sacks within his first few seasons. The greatest concern facing Hall’s ability to succeed is his height. Standing barely over six feet tall, there are worries that Hall could be swallowed up by bigger, equally physically gifted offensive lineman. If his pass rushing abilities can translate, the Raiders have a scary option opposite Khalil Mack. Oakland’s next selection, offensive tackle Brandon Parker is another small school prospect bursting with potential. Similar to Miller, Parker is another tall tackle who stands at 6’8 and weighs 305 pounds. He has quick feet and fluid hips, but his hand placement and technical refinement must improve. Parker faces many of the same struggles Miller does, but doesn’t face the same pressures as a first round pick. Oakland’s second selection of the third round was LSU pass rusher Arden Key. In 2016, Key stayed healthy and thrived as a ferocious pass rusher off the edge with first round pick potential. But, his 2017 season was defined by injury, and the mobility and strength that made Key so dominant appeared nonexistent. Yet if Key is at full strength he has the skills to become the steal of the draft. Even at 6’5, Key has the flexibility and fluidity to get underneath opposing tackles and drive them towards the quarterback. He has long arms and quick feet, and if given the opportunity could blossom into one of the drafts most talented pass rushers. In the fourth the Raiders finally addressed their porous secondary with the selection of corner Nick Nelson. The logic was sound, but in my opinion there were better corner prospects available. Nelson has no major deficiencies, but also doesn’t really possess one standout skill. He has average height (5’11), good straight line speed, fine feet and hips. He was third in the nation in pass deflections with 21, but was unable to pull down any interceptions. Nelson only played one season for the Badgers, but was named to first team Big-10. He will probably never become a true shut down corner, but the likelihood he contributes on special team and in nickel and dime packages is high. In the fifth Oakland stopped the slide of potential first round talent Maurice Hurst, who fills a massive need for the Silver and Black as a disruptor in the middle of their defensive line. Hurst was one of my favorite prospects to scout this offseason, and getting a player of his caliber in the fifth round is highway robbery. The former Wolverine showed consistent production from the defensive tackle position throughout his college career, as he possesses the quickness to attack the quarterback and the strength to make his presence felt in the running game. Hurst is a little undersized at 6’1 and 292 pounds, but similar to current LA Rams superstar Aaron Donald Hurst is able to gain ridiculous leverage and use his advanced hand placement to get quick inside pressure. If just the Key and Hurst picks hit like I anticipate, this draft could revolutionize the entire makeup of this Raiders defense. If they are able to get pressure by just rushing four, their inadequacies in the secondary won’t quite be as glaring. With their next pick, Oakland selected punter Johnny Townsend to replace the departed Marquette King. In the sixth, the Raiders nabbed Azeem Victor, a one time promising linebacker prospect who’s junior and senior season was derailed since he broke his leg late in his junior year. The potential is still there for Victor to be an impact player as a plus athlete with strong instincts, but it remains to be seen if he can stay on the field. Oakland’s final pick was wide receiver Marcell Ateman, who is a tall and long-limbed pass catcher who can go up and get any ball. His speed is nothing special, and his route running could be much more effective, but there are only so many players who possess his combination of height and jumping ability. As a draft class, the Raiders bet big on their ability to develop physically enticing prospects. If their plan succeeds, they could have drafted future stalwarts at crucial positions. If their plan fails, they managed to miss out on the bevy of possible franchise altering defensive talent their team desperately needs. My money is on the latter. All hope is not lost though for the Silver and Black, as the picks of Key and Hurst in the third and fifth rounds respectively may save this draft class from total embarrassment.

Mock Draft 2.0

Welcome to my second mock draft of the season. An important tidbit when evaluating my picks, these are what I think should happen, not necessarily what will happen. While I certainly factored in team need, this draft is more of a reflection of which players I like in the draft rather than my prediction of what will go down this evening. To hear my expanded thoughts on my first round mock, give Two Kids In A Trenchcoat a listen.

1. Cleveland Browns – QB Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold isn’t the perfect quarterback prospect, but he does enough things well to justify the first overall pick. He has the arm strength, accuracy, size and mobility to be an above average starter for years to come, but he needs to improve on his decision making to achieve his true potential. He should compete with the newly acquired Tyrod Taylor for the starting job in camp, but ultimately would be best suited riding the bench while he learns the nuances of life as an NFL quarterback.

2. New York Giants – EDGE Bradley Chubb 

Despite the many lucrative offers the Giants have received for the number two pick, they would be wise to stay pat and select the drafts best defensive player. Bradley Chubb was a dominant force off the edge in his time at NC State, and his pass rushing ability should translate very well to the NFL. His motor and overall athleticism are the best in the class, and his ability to contribute in the run game can not be overlooked. He possesses the qualities of a multi time Pro-Bowler, and should instantly provide a intimidating presence off the edge for the Giant defense.

3. New York Jets – QB Josh Rosen

The New York Jets have failed miserably at evaluating quarterback talent in recent drafts, but have finally found their guy in Josh Rosen. The former UCLA Bruin looked inconsistent in his time in Westwood, but appears to be the most NFL ready of the top three quarterbacks. He has no discernible weaknesses, but also lacks an overwhelming strength. His accuracy is likely his greatest asset, and his footwork and feel for the pocket are top notch. Rosen’s arm strength isn’t elite, but it is certainly NFL caliber, and he has the size NFL teams covet at the quarterback position. At the end of the day, Rosen is essentially the anti-Josh Allen in that he is not an overwhelming athlete, but he knows the ins and outs of the quarterback position. His demeanor fits in perfectly with the New York media, and he should be a mainstay at the quarterback position for years to come.

4. TRADE Buffalo Bills – QB Josh Allen

After forking over picks 12, 21, and a future third in this hypothetical, the Buffalo Bills move all the way up to the fourth pick to get their quarterback. New general manager Brandon Beane has long been a fan of Josh Allen, and what’s not to like. Allen has one of the strongest arms in recent memory, and showed flashes of dominance in his time at Wyoming. There are still major question marks surrounding his accuracy, game management skills, and overall throw making ability, but it’s hard not to fall in love with his incredible natural gifts. No one is doubting Allen’s impressive intangibles, but it remains to be seen if all that talent can translate into wins.

5. Denver Broncos – RB Saquon Barkley

The Denver Broncos owned one of the worst offenses in the NFL last season, and while much of that can be attributed to poor quarterback play, the lack of production from the running back position certainly didn’t help matters. A quick and easy fix to their running back problem would be the selection of Saquon Barkley. Barkely is a generational prospect at the running back position, and instantly transforms the outlook of the Broncos offense. He has the strength and vision to run between the tackles, and the breakaway speed to beat defenders to the edge. Barkley is also an excellent pass catcher, and will provide immediate value as a receiver coming out of the backfield. All in all, Barkley is the complete package and should set the league on fire in the new look Denver offense.

6. Indianapolis Colts – OG Quenton Nelson 

The Indianapolis Colts number one priority this offseason should be to make life as easy as possible for quarterback Andrew Luck, and that starts with keeping him upright. Quenton Nelson is elite at essentially every facet of the game, providing incredible production in both the run and pass game. He has tremendous strength, is quick off the line, uses his feet exceptionally well, and gets impressive leverage with his 34 inch arms. He is an otherworldly prospect at the guard position, and should already be in the conversation for best in the league. Nelson, along with center Ryan Kelly, should anchor the Colts offensive line for years to come.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S Minkah Fitzpatrick

Minkah Fitzpatrick is the best pure safety in the draft, and should immediately provide legitimacy to a talented but deeply flawed Buccaneers defense. He has the ability to play all over the secondary, but will likely find the most success playing as a true single high safety. Fitzpatrick covers an impressive amount of the field when he drops in coverage and has great timing when the balls in the air. He can control entire sections of the field, and makes everyone’s job a lot easier. Fitzpatrick will revamp the entire Tampa Bay defense, and should be a long time NFL starter.

8. Chicago Bears – LB Roquan Smith

There are few players currently in the NFL who match the athletic skillset of Roquan Smith. At Georgia, Smith wrecked havoc on SEC offenses with his incredible sideline to sideline speed. He lead the Bulldogs with 95 tackles, but only five for loss, as Smith did much of his damage over the middle. He put the clamps on opposing running attacks, meeting running backs at the hole and wrapping them up before they crossed the line of scrimmage. He needs improvement in his coverage skills, but at 21 years old he has time to learn. If coached correctly, Smith has the potential to be a multi time Pro Bowler. The Chicago Bears defense is teeming with talent, but lacks an elite talent at the linebacker position. Smith He will immediately be an interesting rookie to watch, and an early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year if he earns the starting job in camp.

9. San Fransisco 49ers – CB Denzel Ward

Denzel Ward certainly has his limitations, but what he does well he does really well. He is probably the quickest corners in the draft, and showed at Ohio State he has the ability to stay with even the shiftiest of receivers. His footwork is advanced, and he plays with an impressive fluidity. Ward is limited by his height at 5’10, but he is able to compensate with elite speed and jumping ability. His 4.32 forty yard dash was tied for tops in the class, and his 39 inch vertical was second. As a rookie, Ward will likely be limited to covering quick slot receivers as he learns the nuances of the position. Eventually though, Ward will become comfortable guarding even the most difficult of matchups, and should be a shut down corner for years to come.

10. Oakland Raiders – CB Josh Jackson

The Oakland Raiders have holes all over their offense, but the secondary especially needs to be addressed. Josh Jackson is a long, physical cornerback who shined in his final season with the Iowa Hawkeyes. He lead the nation in pass breakups and interceptions, and was a first team All-American. Jackson stands at 6’1, elite height for a cornerback that can also jump 38 inches. He is not the quickest of cornerbacks, but he excels at all other levels. He profiles similar to player like Richard Sherman, who stands a little taller at 6’3 but has the same forty time as Jackson at 4.56 seconds. Jackson projects as a rangy press corner who can be effective in the right system. His ball skills and route anticipation are elite, and should help compensate for his lack of blinding speed.

11. Miami Dolphins – S Derwin James

Derwin James has become something of a Florida football legend, so it only makes sense to continue his football career in his home state. A truly gifted athlete, James can impact the game from the safety position like few others can. His 6’2 frame glides around the field, delivering bone-crushing blows to any receiver who dares come over the middle. James also has the ability to play as a double high safety, and uses his long arms and exceptional speed to make a difference in the pass game. He will best be suited playing near the line of scrimmage, where he can patrol the middle, blitz the passer or control the run game. He will make everyone around him better, and can help solidify a Miami defense lacking in talent. There are few defensive players who will have the immediate impact of James, and he should dominate within the next few years.

12. TRADE Cleveland Browns – LB Tremaine Edmunds 

The Cleveland Browns defense is teeming with talent, but could always find a spot for a game changing talent like Tremaine Edmunds. Edmunds is incredibly only 19 years old, and he already looked dominant in his time at Virginia Tech. In his junior season, he lead the team with 109 tackles, 14 for loss and was named to first team All-ACC. Standing at 6’5 and weighing 253 pounds, Edmunds has the size to wreak havoc in the run game. He is also an exceptional athlete, and has the sideline to sideline speed necessary to control the middle of the field. He can do so many things well, yet has so much room to improve. He was often out of place, fooled by play action or misdirection. Edmunds often bailed out on the run, either blowing up the offense’s play or finding himself completely taken out of it. Edmunds mostly relied on his elite athleticism to make plays, and for the most part it worked. He will learn quickly that won’t work quite as well in the NFL. He may not find success quickly, but Edmunds should eventually pick up on the nuances of the position and may prove to be one of the top talents in this draft.

13. Washington – NT Vita Vea

Tevita Tuliakiono Tuipuloto Mosese Va’hae Faletau Vea, also known as Vita Vea, has the size of a traditional nose tackle, but has the ability to line up all across the defensive line. He is a behemoth of a man, standing at 6’4 and weighing 347 pounds, but the former high school running back has the quickness and explosiveness to blow by opposing offensive lineman. Inconsistency plagued Vea’s final season at Washington, and has divided scouts on Vea’s long term potential. At worst, he will act as a disruptor in the middle of the defensive line who can act as an integral part of early down rotations. At his best, Vea could be a three down lineman with the ability to wreak havoc as both a run defender and pass rusher.

14. Green Bay Packers –  WR Calvin Ridley

With the departure of Jordy Nelson, the game’s best quarterback needs a new weapon, and who better than the draft’s best wide receiver. Calvin Ridley is the premiere talent in this year’s receiving corp, and acclimate very quickly to life with Aaron Rodgers. He is a natural route runner with fantastic hands and an uncanny ability to create space. Ridley showed the ability to burn defenders when necessary, and his 4.43 forty time was tied for sixth in his class. He also has the height at 6’3 to go up and get any ball thrown his way. He’s the top receiver in this draft for a reason, and he falls to the perfect situation for him to dominate from day one.

15. Arizona Cardinals – QB Baker Mayfield 

Baker Mayfield is one of the draft’s most polarizing figures, with scouts split on how to properly evaluate the former Heisman trophy winner. Some scouts point to Mayfield’s impressive college production, and trust his skills will translate at the next level. Others believe his video game like numbers were propped up by porous Big-12 defenses, and point to his struggles against elite college defenses. While neither constituency is necessarily incorrect, the idea that Mayfield will be able to find the same success he did with Oklahoma in the NFL is highly unlikely. He has elite play-making ability, and certainly has the highest floor of any quarterback prospect in the draft. His arm strength and accuracy are above average, and his mobility adds another intriguing wrinkle to his overall skillset. But, at Oklahoma Mayfield was rarely put in difficult situations and was surrounded by some of the best talent in the country. His lack of height is overblown, but obviously not ideal, and there are serious concerns about his decision making under pressure. Overall, Mayfield should be an average to above average starting quarterback, and in the right situation could blossom into an All-Pro type talent.

16. Baltimore Ravens – EDGE Harold Landry

Harold Landry is one of the purest pass rushers in the draft, and under the tutelage of Baltimore Raven legend Terrell Suggs Landry could develop into one of the leagues scariest forces off the edge. Landry was a projected top five pick to start the year, but his stock quickly fell after a injury riddled senior season at Boston College. Scouts instead point to an incredible junior year campaign where Landry racked up 16.5 sacks, 22 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles. He showed elite explosiveness off the edge, and has the dip and rip ability to be a constant nuisance in the pass game. Landry has enough natural skill and athleticism to stay in the league, but to become a truly impactful pass rusher he will need to get significantly better with his arm placement and develop true pass rush moves. He is a great find for the Ravens at 16, and should be an impact player from day one.

17. Los Angeles Chargers – DL Maurice Hurst

The Los Angeles Chargers already have an impressive corp of young pass rushers, namely former first rounders Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but are lacking any presence in the middle of their defensive line. While they could go with a traditional nose tackle like Vita Vea, but the 4-3 scheme the Chargers employ would better benefit a quicker, more agile defensive lineman like Maurice Hurst. Hurst was a force of nature in his time at Michigan, and his pass rushing ability should translate well at the NFL level. He has long arms, a fantastic motor, and has the quickness and strength to command a constant double team. The red flag with Hurst stems from his health, as he was flagged for heart concerns during the Combine’s initial health screening. But, Hurst was later cleared by an independent doctor, and didn’t receive a request for a second screening from the Combine’s doctors. If a team’s own doctors find no long term issues with Hurst’s health, he could be a steal for a team later in the first round.

18. Seattle Seahawks – EDGE Marcus Davenport 

The Seattle Seahawks quietly are in desperate need of a pass rusher, and Marcus Davenport is one of the best in the draft. Davenport absolutely obliterated Conference USA offenses in his final season with UTSA, and many are confident his production can translate at the next level. He is a behemoth of a man, weighing in at 6’6 and 264 pounds, but has a quickness and agility not typically granted to players his size. At the combine Davenport ran a 4.58 forty and put up 22 reps on the bench press. He registered 57 total pressures in his senior season, collecting eight and a half sacks and 55 tackles, 17.5 of them for loss. He is an absolute terror coming off the edge, and has the strength and speed to get to the quarterback in a variety of different ways. Much of his success in college can be attributed to the disparity in natural talent, and as a result Davenport’s technical skills are slightly underdeveloped. He is not the most instinctual pass rusher, and he is often out of position with his hand placement. Overall, Davenport has his fair share of weaknesses, but still has the natural talent to get his new team very excited for the future.

19. Dallas Cowboys – WR D.J. Moore

Even before the release of  Dez Bryant, the Dallas Cowboys were lacking depth and talent at the wide receiver position. In Moore, the Cowboys are drafting a true speed threat who is electric with the ball in his hands. Moore stands at 6’4, but has the agility and quickness of a slot receiver. His footwork at the wide receiver position is exceptional, and he has become virtually unguardable on short passing routes. Moore’s greatest strength though lies after the catch. He has the vision of a running back and is often able to take short passes for long gains. In the NFL, Moore will need to improve on his jump ball skills and learn how to truly utilize his 6’4 frame. In due time, Moore could become a force in the red zone. All in all, Moore is an exciting and versatile offensive weapon who should produce from day one.

20. Detroit Lions – RB Derrius Guice 

The best running back Matthew Stafford has ever played with as a member of the Detroit Lions is Reggie Bush. It’s time for that to change. Derrius Guice is the most complete back in the draft not named Saquon, and in this high octane Lions offense he could thrive from day one. Guice’s greatest strengths lie in his ability to read holes and get through them quickly. He has an impressive initial burst and elite lateral quickness that allows him to quickly get to the second level. Standing at 5’10, Guice is a bowling ball in the open field and essentially impossible to take down with just one player. His legs always seem to be churning, and he is an absolute force in the red zone. The greatest concern surrounding Guice is his ability to stay healthy. Guice was sidelined by a variety of different injuries in his final season with LSU, and the nature of the running back position does not lend itself well to oft injured players, no matter how talented. Guice will almost certainly make his presence felt in the league. The question is for how long.

21. Cincinnati Bengals – OT Mike McGlinchey

Mike McGlinchey was the model of consistency at Notre Dame, playing in every single game in his three years with the school. He isn’t a phenomenal athlete, but McGlinchey plays the offensive tackle with a understanding usually reserved for veterans ten year his senior. He played both right and left tackle in college, and should become a day one starter at either position. Scouts rave about McGlinchey’s attention to detail and comprehension of the intricacies that separate the good offensive lineman from the great ones. McGlinchey has all the makings of a franchise left tackle, but lacks the pure athletic ability needed to truly dominate in the NFL. He should succeed from the second he steps in the building, and will likely have a spot in the league for years to come.

22. TRADE Cleveland Browns – Isaiah Oliver

Isaiah Oliver looks the part of the modern NFL corner, and possess the type of skillset general managers around the league covet. He stands at 6’0 and weighs 200 pounds, but runs a 4.5 second forty yard dash. Oliver thrives in matchups against big, physical receivers, but could struggle against the league’s quickest pass catchers. Oliver’s press coverage at Colorado was some of the best in the nation and should translate well at the next level. He also has exceptional ball skills and is adept at taking away easy completions. He obviously is far from a finished product, but has limitations in his game that may hold him back from truly elite status. Oliver isn’t as fluid as some would like, and he has trouble flipping his hips and changing direction quickly. He would benefit from a reduced role as a rookie, but with time he should evolve into an above average starting cornerback.

23. New England Patriots – QB Lamar Jackson 

In an offense crafted around his skills, Jackson has the ability to be the most successful quarterback from this draft class. He has incredible natural gifts, and showed time and time again at Louisville that he has the ability to make NFL-caliber throws. His arm strength is elite, and he has a deftness and touch on throws few others in this draft can replicate. Unlike most other college prospects, Jackson played a pro style system in college and will likely surprise his doubters with his ability to manipulate the defense and lead an offense. Jackson’s ability with his legs can not be overlooked, and his electricity running the ball adds a dimension few other quarterbacks can replicate. His ability to run the ball from the quarterback position is on par with some of the greatest talents the league has ever seen. There are slight concerns about Jackson’s decision making and ability under pressure, but no prospect is perfect. Personally, I have Jackson as better prospects than Allen and Mayfield, and only slightly below Darnold and Rosen. Luckily for the Patriots, age-old stereotypes and scouting bias has served them Tom Brady’s successor on a silver platter.

24. Carolina Panthers – CB Jaire Alexander 

As NFL passing offenses continue to prosper, the cornerback position has become even more of a priority in building a championship level roster. Twitchier, smaller corners who will likely only play in nickel or dime sets have transitioned from luxury to necessity and an elite level talent like Jaire Alexander is a huge advantage in today’s NFL. Alexander stands at 5’11, but runs a blazing 4.38 forty and has a 35 inch vertical. Alexander shined as a sophomore, pulling down five interceptions including two against future first round pick Deshaun Watson in a Louisville loss to Clemson. His junior season was limited to six games due to injury, but he showed enough the previous to validate a first round selection. Alexander should contribute in a limited role his rookie season, and will likely grow into an above average player at the position.

25. Tennessee Titans – TE Dallas Goedert

After a surprising playoff run that culminated in a divisional round loss to the New England Patriots, the Tennessee Titans are ready to compete now behind the leadership of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota should thrive in new offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur’s system, but the offense would be best suited to add another weapon. A full season from former top five pick Corey Davis should help, but adding a tight end of Dallas Goedert’s quality would unlock unforseen levels for the Titan offense. If the team can get over his inexperience as a blocker, and that’s a big if, Goedert would be an exciting complement to star tight end Delanie Walker and an instant contributor for an up-and-coming Titan offense. Goedert was an athletic talent rarely seen at South Dakota State, and he often looked like a man amongst boys. He is 6’5 with almost an 80 inch winspan, giving him a ridiculous catch radius to pair with his breakaway speed. His route running skills are undeveloped, but if the Titans are willing to be patient Goedert has the natural talent to quickly develop into one of the league’s premiere talents at the position.

26. Atlanta Falcons – EDGE Arden Key

Arden Key was once thought to be a top ten pick, but after a junior season defined by injury and intrigue Key’s draft stock plummeted. Scouts instead should focus on Key’s sophomore season at LSU, where the Atlanta native racked up 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss en route to All-SEC honors. Key is explosive off the line, and uses his 34 inch arms to overpower opposing offensive tackles. His footwork certainly needs to improve, and he needs to develop a wider array of moves but Key certainly has the natural talent to justify a first round pick. There are also concerns stemming from Key’s departure from LSU last spring, and how that may have contributed to a disappointing 2017 season. Overall, Key has the talent of a top ten pick, but questions surrounding his health and overall makeup make him a boom-or-bust pick for the Falcons.

27. New Orleans Saints – DL Taven Bryan 

Taven Bryan was simply unblockable at times during his stint with the Florida Gators, and has the potential to bring the same sort of dominance to New Orleans. He is extremely quick off the ball and was often in the backfield before the play even developed. Bryan mostly plays on the interior, but his smaller frame may eventually push him to the outside. At Florida, Bryan simply used his supreme athletic ability to either blow by or bowl over opposing offensive lineman. In the NFL, Bryan won’t have that luxury and some scouts worry he won’t develop the moves necessary to succeed against his athletic peers. Despite the flashes of dominance, Bryan’s college stats are underwhelming at best. He collected only four sacks his final season in Gainesville, and only totaled six in his three years at Florida. Bryan certainly has first round talent, but he will likely take some time to evolve into the pass rusher he one day could be. Whichever team selects Bryan is taking a sizable risk, but one that could pay dividends somewhere down the road.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers  – LB Rashaan Evans

The horrific injury to Ryan Shazier left a gaping hole at the linebacker position for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and there are few prospects who could fill the void better than Rashaan Evans. Evans is the most complete linebacker prospect in the draft, and while he doesn’t dominate in one particular area he possesses no glaring weaknesses. Evans is strong in the run game, controlling sideline to sideline for the vaunted Crimson Tide defense. He is also skilled as a pass rusher, and should provide value as a blitz happy linebacker in sub packages. Evan’s instincts aren’t quite as honed as other prospects in the draft, and scouts are curious to see how effective he can be outside of Alabama’s system. All in all though, Evans is a player worth betting on and should make some defensive coordinator very happy.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars – OG Isaiah Wynn

Isaiah Wynn shined at left tackle for the championship bound Georgia Bulldogs, but at 6’3 with relatively short arms, Wynn will likely move inside to guard in the NFL. He has excellent footwork and his hand placement is top notch. All of the skills that made him an All-American at left tackle will translate well to guard, and he should quickly form one of the league’s fiercest guard pairings with Andrew Norwell.

30. Minnesota Vikings – OT Connor Williams 

Once thought to be the next great left tackle prospect, Connor Williams had a disappointing and injury riddled junior season and has seen his draft stock take a sizable hit. There is no denying though the brilliance of Williams in 2016, when he controlled the Longhorns offensive line and blanketed opposing pass rushers. Williams has fantastic technique, rarely finding his hands in poor positioning. His footwork is also advanced for his age, and he plays with a fluidity necessary to succeed at the next level. Williams greatest strength lies in the run game, which may facilitate a move to guard or even center at the next level. Despite his 6’5 frame, Williams has relatively short arms at 33 inches and has struggled against longer, more physical defensive ends. He also needs to gain more flexibility in his hips, as he sometimes had trouble containing the quickest of edge rushers. Overall, Williams is certainly not without his flaws and will benefit greatly from the upgrade in coaching he will receive in the NFL. Even after a discouraging 2017 season, Williams still projects as a starting offensive lineman with the natural ability to take the next step forward.

31. New England Patriots – LB Leighton Vander Esch

The New England Patriots owned one of the league’s most porous defenses last season, and with their second first round pick they should address the middle of their defense. Leighton Vander Esch was one of the most effective linebackers in the country last season, racking up an astounding 141 tackles, good for fifth in the country, to go along with four sacks and two interceptions. He is a menace in the run game, blowing up holes almost as quickly as they open. Vander Esch also took large strides in his coverage skills in his junior season, and has clearly made it a priority to never come off the field. Standing at 6’4 and weighing 256 pounds, Vander Esch possesses ideal intangibles for the middle linebacker position. He’s not the perfect prospect, as he needs to learn to release off blocks quicker and get stronger in coverage, but he is a strong pick at the end of the first round. The former Boise State Bronco is a true three down linebacker, and should have a long and fruitful NFL career.

32. Philadelphia Eagles – S Justin Reid

The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles figure to have a loaded defense next season, but could add another exciting contributor with the selection of Justin Reid. Reid can do a lot of things well, as he has the coverage skills to lock receivers up in man coverage or drop deep and control the field as a single-high safety. Reid has ideal height at 6’1 and is an impressive athlete, running a 4.4 forty and registering a 37 inch vertical jump. His ability to come down with interceptions is uncanny for his age, and his presence in the run game can not be overlooked. There are still concerning flaws in Reid’s game, as he can be a little undisciplined, especially in the run game, and his feet aren’t as quick as some of his safety counterparts. Overall though, Reid will instantly produce in nickel and dime packages, and should become a long term starter once he learns the intricacies of the safety position.

Mock Draft 1.0

Welcome to my first mock draft of the season. An important tidbit when evaluating my picks, these are what I think should happen, not necessarily what will happen. While I certainly factored in team need, this draft is more of a reflection of which players I like in the draft rather than my prediction of what will go down April 26. And with that in mind, we’re off!

1. Cleveland Browns – QB Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold isn’t the perfect quarterback prospect, but he does enough things well to justify the first overall pick. He has the arm strength, accuracy, size and mobility to be an above average starter for years to come, but he needs to improve on his decision making to achieve his true potential. He should compete with the newly acquired Tyrod Taylor for the starting job in camp, but ultimately would be best suited riding the bench while he learns the nuances of life as an NFL quarterback.

2. TRADE Buffalo Bills – QB Josh Allen

After forking over picks 12, 21, and a future third in this hypothetical, the Buffalo Bills move all the way up to the second pick to get their quarterback. New general manager Brandon Beane has long been a fan of Josh Allen, and what’s not to like. Allen has one of the strongest arms in recent memory, and showed flashes of dominance in his time at Wyoming. There are still major question marks surrounding his accuracy, game management skills, and overall throw making ability, but it’s hard not to fall in love with his incredible natural gifts. No one is doubting Allen’s impressive intangibles, but it remains to be seen if all that talent can translate into wins.

3. New York Jets – QB Josh Rosen

The New York Jets have failed miserably at evaluating quarterback talent in recent drafts, but have finally found their guy in Josh Rosen. The former UCLA Bruin looked inconsistent in his time in Westwood, but appears to be the most NFL ready of the top three quarterbacks. He has no discernible weaknesses, but also lacks an overwhelming strength. His accuracy is likely his greatest asset, and his footwork and feel for the pocket are top notch. Rosen’s arm strength isn’t elite, but it is certainly NFL caliber, and he has the size NFL teams covet at the quarterback position. At the end of the day, Rosen is essentially the anti-Josh Allen in that he is not an overwhelming athlete, but he knows the ins and outs of the quarterback position. His demeanor fits in perfectly with the New York media, and he should be a mainstay at the quarterback position for years to come.

4. Cleveland Browns – EDGE Bradley Chubb

With their second top five pick, the Cleveland Browns select the drafts best defensive player, and an immediate impact presence on the Browns defense. Bradley Chubb was a dominant force off the edge in his time at NC State, and his pass rushing ability should translate very well to the NFL. His motor and overall athleticism are the best in the class, and his ability to contribute in the run game can not be overlooked. He possesses the qualities of a multi time Pro-Bowler, and should from one of the league’s fiercest pass rushing duos with former number one overall pick Myles Garrett.

5. Denver Broncos – QB Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield is one of the draft’s most polarizing figures, with scouts split on how to properly evaluate the former Heisman trophy winner. Some scouts point to Mayfield’s impressive college production, and trust his skills will translate at the next level. Others believe his video game like numbers were propped up by porous Big-12 defenses, and point to his struggles against elite college defenses. While neither constituency is necessarily incorrect, the idea that Mayfield will be able to find the same success he did with Oklahoma in the NFL is highly unlikely. He has elite play-making ability, and certainly has the highest floor of any quarterback prospect in the draft. His arm strength and accuracy are above average, and his mobility adds another intriguing wrinkle to his overall skillset. But, at Oklahoma Mayfield was rarely put in difficult situations and was surrounded by some of the best talent in the country. His lack of height is overblown, but it is obviously not ideal, and there are serious concerns about his decision making under pressure. Overall, Mayfield should be an average to above average starting quarterback, and in the right situation could blossom into an All-Pro type talent.

6. Indianapolis Colts – RB Saquon Barkley

The Indianapolis Colts number one priority this offseason should be to make life as easy as possible for quarterback Andrew Luck, and the easiest way to do that is to get him some weapons. Saquon Barkely is a generational prospect at the running back position, and will provide much needed life to a mundane Colts offense. He has the strength and vision to run between the tackles, and the breakaway speed to beat defenders to the edge. Barkley is also an excellent pass catcher, and should provide immediate value as a receiver coming out of the backfield. All in all, Barkley is a fantastic fit next to Luck and the perfect addition to the talent starved Colts.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S Minkah Fitzpatrick

Minkah Fitzpatrick is the best pure safety in the draft, and should immediately help a struggling Buccaneers defense. He has the ability to play all over the secondary, but will likely find the most success playing as a true single high safety. Fitzpatrick covers an impressive amount of the field when he drops in coverage and has great timing when the balls in the air. He can control entire sections of the field, and makes everyone’s job a lot easier. Fitzpatrick will revamp the entire Tampa Bay defense, and should be a long time NFL starter.

8. Chicago Bears – G Quenton Nelson

Quenton Nelson may be the best player in the draft, but luckily for Chicago falls all the way to eighth. Nelson is elite at essentially every facet of the game, providing incredible production in both the run and pass game. He has tremendous strength, is quick off the line, uses his feet exceptionally well, and gets impressive leverage with his 34 inch arms. He is an otherworldly prospect at the guard position, and should already be in the conversation for best in the league. Nelson, along with fellow guard Kyle Long, should anchor the Bears offensive line for years to come.

9. San Fransisco 49ers – CB Denzel Ward

Denzel Ward certainly has his limitations, but what he does well he does really well. He is one of the quickest corners in the draft, and showed at Ohio State he has the ability to stay with even the shiftiest of receivers. His footwork is advanced, and he plays with an impressive fluidity. Ward is limited by his height at 5’10, but he is able to compensate with elite speed and jumping ability. His 4.32 forty yard dash was tied for tops in the class, and his 39 inch vertical was second. Ward will ultimately be comfortable guarding most receivers in this league, and should be a shut down corner for years to come.

10. Oakland Raiders – LB Roquan Smith

There are few players currently in the NFL who match the athletic skillset of Roquan Smith. At Georgia, Smith wrecked havoc on SEC offenses with his incredible sideline to sideline speed. He lead the Bulldogs with 95 tackles, but only five for loss, as Smith did much of his damage over the middle. He needs improvement in his coverage skills, but at 21 he has time to learn. If coached correctly, Smith has the potential to be a multi time Pro Bowler. He will immediately be an interesting rookie to watch, and an early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year if he earns the starting job in camp. Smith should help legitimatize a defense bursting with talent.

11. Miami Dolphins – CB Josh Jackson

Josh Jackson is a long, physical cornerback who shined in his final season with the Iowa Hawkeyes. He lead the nation in pass breakups and interceptions, and was a first team All-American. Jackson stands at 6’1, elite height for a cornerback that can also jump 38 inches. He is not the quickest of cornerbacks, but he excels at all other levels. He profiles similar to player like Richard Sherman, who stands a little taller at 6’3 but has the same forty time as Jackson at 4.56 seconds. Jackson projects as a rangy press corner who can be effective in the right system. His ball skills and route anticipation are elite, and should help compensate for his lack of blinding speed.

12. TRADE New York Giants – LB Tremaine Edmunds

The New York Giants need a linebacker bad, and they get one bursting with potential in Tremaine Edmunds. Edmunds is incredibly only 19 years old, and he already looked dominant in his time at Virginia Tech. In his junior season, he lead the team with 109 tackles, 14 for loss and was named to first team All-ACC. And yet, he was often out of place, fooled by play action or misdirection. When he bails out on the run play he can either blow up a play or be taken completely out of it. In college, Edmunds relied purely on his elite athleticism to make plays, and for the most part it worked. He should pick up on the nuances of the position quickly, and may prove to be one of the top talents in this draft.

13. Washington – S Derwin James

Another elite athlete, Derwin James plays the safety position like few others can. His 6’2 frame glides around the field, delivering bone-crushing blows to any receiver who dares come over the middle. James also has the ability to play as a double high safety, and uses his long arms to make a difference in the pass game. He will best be suited playing near the line of scrimmage, where he can patrol the middle, blitz the passer or control the run game. He will make everyone around him better and can help solidify a Washington defense lacking in talent. There are few defensive players who will have the immediate impact of James, and he should dominate within the next few years.

14. Green Bay Packers –  WR Calvin Ridley

With the departure of Jordy Nelson, the game’s best quarterback needs a new weapon, and who better than the draft’s best wide receiver. Calvin Ridley is the premiere talent in this year’s receiving corp, and acclimate very quickly to life with Aaron Rodgers. He is a natural route runner with fantastic hands and an uncanny ability to create space. Ridley showed the ability to burn defenders when necessary, and his 4.43 forty time was tied for sixth in his class. He’s the top receiver in this draft for a reason, and he falls to the perfect situation for him to dominate from day one.

15. Arizona Cardinals – QB Lamar Jackson

The Arizona Cardinals don’t seem to have a plan, but the selection of Lamar Jackson could define their present and their future. In an offense crafted around his skills, Jackson has the ability to be the most successful quarterback from this draft class. He has incredible natural gifts, and showed time and time again at Louisville that he has the ability to make NFL-caliber throws. His arm strength is elite, but at times his accuracy and decision making can be suspect. Unlike most other college prospects though, Jackson played a pro style system in college and will likely surprise his doubters with his ability to make the short and intermediate throws. Jackson’s ability with his legs can not be overlooked, and his electricity running the ball adds a dimension few other quarterbacks can replicate. If paired with a running back of David Johnson’s caliber, their potential together is unlimited. Jackson should sit for a year behind Sam Bradford, but once he’s ready there’s no telling what kind of career he can have.

16. Baltimore Ravens – G Isiah Wynn 

The Baltimore Ravens know better than anybody how much a dominant guard can anchor an offensive line, and draft their next ten year starter with the selection of Isiah Wynn. Wynn played well in his final season at Georgia, being named first team All-SEC and second team All-American while anchoring the line for the championship game bound Bulldogs. He is proficient in the passing attack, but he is downright dominant in the run game. He has lightning quick hands and his footwork is advanced for his age. He should start from day one, and will benefit greatly playing opposite All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda.

17. Los Angeles Chargers – DL Maurice Hurst

The Los Angeles Chargers already have an impressive corp of young pass rushers, namely former first rounders Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but are lacking any presence in the middle of their defensive line. While they could go with a traditional nose tackle like Vita Vea, but the 4-3 scheme the Chargers employ would better benefit a quicker, more agile defensive lineman like Maurice Hurst. Hurst was a force of nature in his time at Michigan, and his pass rushing ability should translate well at the NFL level. He has long arms, a fantastic motor, and has the quickness and strength to command a constant double team. The red flag with Hurst stems from his health, as he was flagged for heart concerns during the Combine’s initial health screening. But, Hurst was later cleared by an independent doctor, and didn’t receive a request for a second screening from the Combine’s doctors. If a team’s own doctors find no long term issues with Hurst’s health, he could be a steal for a team later in the first round.

18. Seattle Seahawks – EDGE Harold Landry

The Seattle Seahawks quietly are in desperate need of a pass rusher, and Harold Landry is one of the purest in the draft. He was a projected top five pick to start the year, but his stock quickly fell after a injury riddled senior season at Boston College. Scouts instead point to an incredible junior year campaign where Landry racked up 16.5 sacks, 22 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles. He showed elite explosiveness off the edge, and has the dip and rip ability to be a constant nuisance in the pass game. Landry has enough natural skill and athleticism to stay in the league, but to become a truly impactful pass rusher he will need to get significantly better with his arm placement and develop true pass rush moves. He is a great find for the Seahawks at 18, and should be an impact player from day one.

19. Dallas Cowboys – CB Isaiah Oliver

Isaiah Oliver looks the part of the modern NFL corner, and possess the type of skillset general managers around the league covet. He stands at 6’0 and weighs 200 pounds, but runs a 4.5 second forty yard dash. Oliver thrives in matchups against big, physical receivers, but could struggle against the league’s quickest pass catchers. Oliver’s press coverage at Colorado was some of the best in the nation and should translate well at the next level. He also has exceptional ball skills and is adept at taking away easy completions. He obviously is far from a finished product, but has limitations in his game that may hold him back from truly elite status. Oliver isn’t as fluid as some would like, and he has trouble flipping his hips and changing direction quickly. He would benefit from a reduced role as a rookie, but with time he should evolve into an above average starting cornerback.

20. Detroit Lions – DL Taven Bryan 

Taven Bryan was simply unblockable at times during his stint with the Florida Gators, and has the potential to bring the same sort of dominance to Detroit. He is extremely quick off the ball and was often in the backfield before the play even developed. Bryan mostly plays on the interior, but his smaller frame may eventually push him to the outside. At Florida, Bryan simply used his supreme athletic ability to either blow by or bowl over opposing offensive lineman. In the NFL, Bryan won’t have that luxury and some scouts worry he won’t develop the moves necessary to succeed against his athletic peers. Despite the flashes of dominance, Bryan’s college stats are underwhelming at best. He collected only four sacks his final season in Gainesville, and only totaled six in his three years at Florida. Bryan certainly has first round talent, but he will likely take some time to evolve into the pass rusher he one day could be. Whichever team selects Bryan is taking a sizable risk, but one that could pay dividends somewhere down the road.

21. Cincinnati Bengals – OT Mike McGlinchey

Mike McGlinchey was the model of consistency at Notre Dame, playing in every single game in his three years with the school. He isn’t a phenomenal athlete, but McGlinchey plays the offensive tackle with a understanding usually reserved for veterans ten year his senior. He played both right and left tackle in college, and should become a day one starter at either position. Scouts rave about McGlinchey’s attention to detail and comprehension of the intricacies that separate the good offensive lineman from the great ones. McGlinchey has all the makings of a franchise left tackle, but lacks the pure athletic ability needed to truly dominate in the NFL. He should succeed from the second he steps in the building, and will likely have a spot in the league for years to come.

22. TRADE New York Giants –  S Justin Reid

The New York Giants use their second first round pick of the day to continue the revitalization of their defense, and select one of the draft’s best pure safeties. Reid can do a lot of things well, as he has the coverage skills to lock receivers up in man coverage or drop deep and control the field as a single-high safety. Reid has ideal height at 6’1 and is an impressive athlete, running a 4.4 forty and registering a 37 inch vertical jump. His ability to come down with interceptions is uncanny for his age, and his presence in the run game can not be overlooked. There are still concerning flaws in Reid’s game, as he can be a little undisciplined, especially in the run game, and his feet aren’t as quick as some of his safety counterparts. Overall though, Reid profiles as a long time starter at the safety position and a steal at 22.

23. New England Patriots – EDGE Marcus Davenport

Marcus Davenport absolutely obliterated Conference USA offenses in his final season with UTSA, but unlike past small school stars, Davenport didn’t rely purely on his athleticism. Davenport still grades as an above average athlete, with a 4.58 forty time and 22 reps on the bench press, but his ever important three cone time was a relatively disappointing 7.2 seconds. Also important to mention Davenport is listed at a whopping 6’7 and 256 pounds. On top of all that, Davenport has some of the best technique in the draft and can attack off the edge in a variety of ways. He registered 57 total pressures in his senior season, collecting eight and a half sacks and 55 tackles, 17.5 of them for loss. He is an elite pass rusher by any definition of the word, and should fit in nicely on a New England defense needing a presence off the edge.

24. Carolina Panthers – CB Jaire Alexander

As NFL passing offenses continue to prosper, the cornerback position has become even more of a priority in building a championship level roster. Twitchier, smaller corners who will likely only play in nickel or dime sets have transitioned from luxury to necessity and an elite level talent like Jaire Alexander is a huge advantage in today’s NFL. Alexander stands at 5’11, but runs a blazing 4.38 forty and has a 35 inch vertical. Alexander shined as a sophomore, pulling down five interceptions including two against future first round pick Deshaun Watson in a Louisville loss to Clemson. His junior season was limited to six games due to injury, but he showed enough the previous to validate a first round selection. Alexander should contribute in a limited role his rookie season, and will likely grow into an above average player at the position.

25. Tennessee Titans – TE Dallas Goedert

After a surprising playoff run that culminated in a divisional round loss to the New England Patriots, the Tennessee Titans are ready to compete now behind the leadership of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota should thrive in new offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur’s system, but the offense would be best suited to add another weapon. A full season from former top five pick Corey Davis should help, but adding a tight end of Dallas Goedert’s quality would unlock unforseen levels for the Titan offense. If the team can get over his inexperience as a blocker, and that’s a big if, Goedert would be an exciting complement to star tight end Delanie Walker and an instant contributor for an up-and-coming Titan offense. Goedert was an athletic talent rarely seen at South Dakota State, and he often looked like a man amongst boys. He is 6’5 with almost an 80 inch winspan, giving him a ridiculous catch radius to pair with his breakaway speed. His route running skills are undeveloped, but if the Titans are willing to be patient Goedert has the natural talent to quickly develop into one of the league’s premiere talents at the position.

26. Atlanta Falcons – EDGE Arden Key

Arden Key was once thought to be a top ten pick, but after a junior season defined by injury and intrigue Key’s draft stock plummeted. Scouts instead should focus on Key’s sophomore season at LSU, where the Atlanta native racked up 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss en route to All-SEC honors. Key is explosive off the line, and uses his 34 inch arms to overpower opposing offensive tackles. His footwork certainly needs to improve, and he needs to develop a wider array of moves, but towards the end of the first round there are few better values than Key.

27. New Orleans Saints – NT Vita Vea

Tevita Tuliakiono Tuipuloto Mosese Va’hae Faletau Vea, also known as Vita Vea, has the size of a traditional nose tackle, but has the ability to line up all across the defensive line. He is a behemoth of a man, standing at 6’4 and weighing 347 pounds, but the former high school running back has the quickness and explosiveness to blow by opposing offensive lineman. Inconsistency plagued Vea’s final season at Washington, and has divided scouts on Vea’s long term potential. At worst, he will act as a disruptor in the middle of the defensive line who can act as an integral part of early down rotations. At his best, Vea could be a three down lineman with the ability to wreak havoc as both a run defender and pass rusher. The situation Vea is drafted into will likely decide his future.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers  – LB Rashaan Evans

The horrific injury to Ryan Shazier left a gaping hole at the linebacker position for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and there are few prospects who could fill the void better than Rashaan Evans. Evans is the most complete linebacker prospect in the draft, and while he doesn’t dominate in one particular area he possesses no glaring weaknesses. Evans is strong in the run game, controlling sideline to sideline for the vaunted Crimson Tide defense. He is also skilled as a pass rusher, and should provide value as a blitz happy linebacker in sub packages. Evan’s instincts aren’t quite as honed as other prospects in the draft, and scouts are curious to see how effective he can be outside of Alabama’s system. All in all though, Evans is a player worth betting on and should make some defensive coordinator very happy.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars – OT Connor Williams

Once thought to be the next great left tackle prospect, Connor Williams had a disappointing and injury riddled junior season and has seen his draft stock take a sizable hit. There is no denying though the brilliance of Williams in 2016, when he controlled the Longhorns offensive line and blanketed opposing pass rushers. Williams has fantastic technique, rarely finding his hands in poor positioning. His footwork is also advanced for his age, and he plays with a fluidity necessary to succeed at the next level. Williams greatest strength lies in the run game, which may facilitate a move to guard or even center at the next level. Despite his 6’5 frame, Williams has relatively short arms at 33 inches and has struggled against longer, more physical defensive ends. He also needs to gain more flexibility in his hips, as he sometimes had trouble containing the quickest of edge rushers. Overall, Williams is certainly not without his flaws and will benefit greatly from the upgrade in coaching he will receive in the NFL. Even after a discouraging 2017 season, Williams still projects as a starting offensive lineman with the natural ability to take the next step forward.

30. Minnesota Vikings – OG Will Hernandez

Will Hernandez was a four year starter at UTEP, and was a model of consistency starting 37 straight games at left guard. Hernandez excels in the run game, showing impressive quickness and deftness with his feet. His hands always seem to be in the right position, and he plays with a mean streak teams covet. Hernandez’s arms a little short, only measuring 32 inches on his 6’2 frame, and as a result isn’t quite as dominant in the pass game. Yet the potential is there for Hernandez to thrive in both areas, and become a Pro-Bowl caliber guard.

31. New England Patriots – RB Ronald Jones

Ronald Jones will be an instant weapon for whatever team is lucky enough to acquire his skills, and while he likely won’t start at the running back position as a rookie he should provide value as a shifty pass-catcher coming out of the backfield. Jones has some of the quickest feet in the draft and is an overall fantastic athlete. He can produce at a relatively similar level to former Patriots running back Dion Lewis, and offers potential to grow that Lewis did not. Scouts have pegged his light frame as a concern, and worry that he may not be able to hold up over a sixteen game season. Overall, Jones profiles as a immediate threat in both the running and passing game who should contribute from day one.

32. Philadelphia Eagles – LB Leighton Vander Esch

The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles figure to have a loaded defense next season, but could add another exciting contributor with the selection of Leighton Vander Esch. Vander Esch was one of the most effective linebackers in the country last season, racking up an astounding 141 tackles, good for fifth in the country, to go along with four sacks and two interceptions. He is a menace in the run game, blowing up holes almost as quickly as they open. Vander Esch also took large strides in his coverage game, and has clearly made it a priority to never come off the field. Standing at 6’4 and weighing 256 pounds, Vander Esch possesses ideal intangibles for the middle linebacker position. He’s not the perfect prospect, as he needs to learn to release off blocks quicker and get stronger in coverage, but he is a strong pick at the end of the first round. The former Boise State Bronco is a true three down linebacker, and should have a long and fruitful NFL career.

 

The Best Pitches from Ohtani’s Impressive Debut

Shohei Ohtani made his major league pitching debut Sunday afternoon, and it was nothing short of magical. Aside from a three run home run given up in the second inning, Ohtani was essentially mistake free against the Oakland A’s in the Los Angeles Angels’ 7-4 victory. He displayed a variety of different pitches, all with impressive movement and velocity, and notched the first of likely many wins this season. His final stat line read six innings pitched, three earned runs on three hits, one walk and six strikeouts. He also became the first Angels pitcher since 1965 to record six innings and collect more strikeouts than baserunners. Here’s how he did it.

Ohtani has three above average pitches at his disposal, a fastball, slider and splitter. His fastball usually lives in the mid to upper nineties, but has the ability to reach triple digits if need be. On Sunday, Ohtani’s average fastball velocity was 97.8 mph, hitting 100 mph three times and 99 mph nine. Here is his best at bat of the day, a three pitch gem to A’s first baseman Matt Olson.

Olson, the A’s number three hitter, completely whiffs at two straight 99 mph fastballs on the inside half of the plate, then looks helpless as he half swings on a 90 mph splitter in the dirt.

Oakland players swinging at balls in the dirt was a common them of the game on Sunday, as Ohtani consistently used his splitter to produce swings and misses. Here is Ohtani’s first strikeout of the game, courtesy of A’s shortstop Marcus Semien.

Later in the third inning, Ohtani once again used the splitter low and away to get the strikeout and end the inning against Oakland’s third baseman Matt Chapman.

Even when he missed with his location, Ohtani’s stuff was too electric to hit. Early in the second, Ohtani made A’s slugger Khris Davis look absolutely silly with this slider.

While patience is a virtue, it’s hard not to overreact to what we saw this Easter from Ohtani. He kept hitters guessing with a good diversity of pitches, got great movement from both his splitter and his slider, and consistently placed his high nineties fastball wherever he wanted. He played like a number-one starter Sunday, and could be the difference maker for an Angels team with World Series aspirations.

 

Taurean Prince is Atlanta’s first building block

With an impressive win in Utah to end the Jazz’s nine game win streak Tuesday night, it’s due time to examine the Hawks present and their future. 

Dennis Schroder was the star Tuesday night, dropping 41 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a 99-94 Atlanta win over the streaking Jazz. Winning though, has not come often this season for the Hawks. Before yesterday’s win they had lost their last six in a row, and currently own the league’s third worst record at 21-50. This is their first season of true tanking, and whoever they pick in this upcoming draft will likely determine the direction of their long term plan. But, some of the pieces on the Hawks roster right now could grow with the team, and help in the development of whatever young star joins Atlanta next season. One of those pieces is second year forward Taurean Prince.

He had a poor game against the Jazz, but is playing the strongest three week stretch of his young NBA career. In the month of March, Prince is averaging 20.3 points on 44.2% shooting from the field and 43% from three to go along with 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists. He also has single game totals of 38 points twice, 25, 24 and 22 twice. 20.3 is Prince’s highest monthly scoring output of his career, the 5.8 rebounds is second highest, and the 2.9 assists per game are the most he’s ever posted. On the year, Prince is showing improvement across the board on his offensive game, diversifying his skill set and enhancing his three point shot considerably.

 

Last year about 36% of Prince’s shots were threes, and he knocked down a little over 34% of them. This year, Prince has upped both percentages considerably, with threes making up 47% of his total shots and 39% of them falling. He shoots 48% on threes in the corner, up from 34% last season.

This is not to say Prince’s offensive is game is anywhere close to finished. On the season, he is only averaging 13.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 42% shooting from the field and 39% shooting from three. His offensive win shares still register as a negative, -0.1, but it’s up from last year’s number of -0.4.

Defensive win shares is much kinder to Prince, and labels him worth 1.5 shares. He has long been regarded as a strong defensive player, and typically guards the opponents best forward. He is probably a stretch four going forward, who pairs best with a rim protecting five.

He is far from a number one option on offense, but young 6’8 forwards who can shoot and defend are one of the league’s most desired assets, and should pair well with Atlanta’s ever changing young core.

Sorry Philly fans, Lebron isn’t signing with the Sixers

In an effort to “complete the process”, a certain subsection of Philadelphia 76er fans have been pitching soon to be free agent Lebron James on the idea of taking his talents to the city of brotherly love. The campaign to bring Lebron to Philly has reached new heights, with billboards pining for James to join the Sixers appearing this week in Cleveland.

In response, Cavalier fans hoping to keep their homegrown star had a billboard of their own put up.

Lebron has stayed mostly quiet throughout the courting process, briefly indicating he was flattered by the attention. He seemed especially cordial with current Sixer star Joel Embiid after the All-Star game, and even guarded the second year pro in the games final minutes. Yet, the two playing together would cause more problems than answers.

The trio of Lebron James, Ben Simmons and Embiid would certainly strike fear into the opposition, but there are serious doubts about how well the three would function together once they actually got on the court. Embiid would instantly be the most talented big man Lebron has every shared the court with, save for prime Chris Bosh. Yet Embiid’s a much more traditional post player compared to Bosh, and would present a unique team building dilemma for James if he were to sign in Philadelphia. Embiid has a tendency to hold the ball when he gets the ball deep in the post. He currently posts up on 41.7% of Philadelphia’s possessions, second highest of any player in the league. Despite the higher frequency, Embiid has managed to stay relatively efficient. He averages .99 points per post up, good for the 75.7 percentile. An Embiid post up is currently of the Sixers most effective plays, yet their frequency would likely plummet if Lebron were to come to town. A traditional post up player is not typically a staple of a Lebron James offense, as it takes the ball out of Lebron’s hands and forces him away from the basket. As Lebron gets older and older, he has strengthened his own post up game to exploit even the slightest of mismatches. His post up frequency is much lower than Embiids, only appearing in 9.1% of Cleveland’s possessions, but he is almost as efficient. Lebron averages .96 points per post up, which falls in the 69.9 percentile. If the Lebron-Embiid pairing were to work, Embiid would have to improve as a three point shooter. He is currently shooting 31.7% on 3.4 attempts per game this year. While respectable for a player his size, it’s still a win for the defense when he shoots a three based off how well he does other things. Long term, Embiid will likely turn into on above average three point shooter. He is still only 23, and has played in a total of 80 NBA games. Yet if Lebron were to come to town, everyone’s timeline becomes shortened. The Sixers would instantly become title contenders, and more of Embiid would be asked than ever before. The presence of Lebron would certainly alter the career trajectory of Embiid, and may do the same to the other young Sixer star.

Ben Simmons is the closest thing the NBA has seen to a young Lebron since 2003, when  the King himself tore up the league with averages of 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds as a 19 year old rookie. Those numbers look suspiciously close to that of Simmons, who is putting up 16.6 points, 7.4 assists and 7.7 rebounds as a 20 year old rookie. Both have generational passing ability and are most effective as their team’s lead ball handler. That is where the Simmons-Lebron pairing fails, as Simmons especially is not the ideal running mate for Lebron. Lebron typically thrives when playing with four three point threats, and Simmons is about as far from that description as possible. Simmons is historically inept from the three point line, only taking 10 in total this season, eight of which are end of quarter heaves. Yet if Lebron were to come to town, Simmons would almost certainly have to expand his range and completely revamp his game in order to best fit with Lebron. Similar to Embiid, the intense pressure that would accompany Lebron to Philly would likely alter what makes each of those players so special.

Lebron has already realized why Philadelphia isn’t the ideal fit for him (or he will once he reads this article), and has likely already crossed the eastern conference foe off his list. As exciting as it would be, Lebron in a Sixers jersey is a no-win proposition.

 

 

 

 

 

The Zaza conundrum

Zaza Pachulia is a dirty player. He’s not clumsy and he’s not dumb. He knew exactly what he was doing when he fell on Russell Westbrook.

Just like he knew exactly what he was doing when he landed under Kawhi Leonard,

or when he punched Iman Shumpert in the groin,

or when he tried to yank Leonard’s arm out of it’s socket,

or the countless other times Zaza has went after the opposition’s best player with the intent to injure.

Zaza’s vile and despicable acts aren’t basketball, they’re something much more heinous. They also harken back to a different time in NBA history, when every roster was equipped with an “enforcer” and any smaller player who dared travel through the lane should expect swift and severe punishment in the form of a forearm to the jaw. And that’s the problem with a player like Pachulia. His actions would’ve fit in perfectly in the 80s or 90s, when he would’ve been able to deliver career altering injuries with aplomb. Instead, players like Pachulia are viewed today in a much different light, a light that speaks to the evolution of the NBA, and our romanticizing of the past.

Objectively the NBA is in a better place today than it has ever been in it’s history. The league is more popular than ever, interest is growing among key demographics, and the talent pool is as deep as we’ve ever seen it. The evolution of basketball strategy has done wonders for the aesthetic portion of the game. Better athletes who are more technically skilled than their predecessors has only allowed the game to grow, and the implementation of the three point shot has led to a more efficient and nuanced brand of basketball. Players are no longer allowed to be truly one dimensional. Even the lowliest of bench warmers today offer unique matchup problems depending on their specific skill sets. With all that being said, players who one might describe as gritty or tough still have a spot in the league today. Players like P.J. Tucker and Jae Crowder have been sought after assets because of their ability to play tough and give their team an edge. What the league should no longer accept are players like Pachulia, who make it a part of their game to try and take the opposing star out of the game.

With all of the research and information that has been developed in the past decade concerning player injury and their long term affects, each league should have a zero tolerance for players intentionally injuring other players. Regardless of the stakes, athletes regardless of the sport have the right to feel safe from malicious attacks. Yet, with news today that the NBA will not punish Pachulia, Adam Silver and the rest of the league office are setting a clear precedent that these sort of actions are still permissible in today’s NBA. While Silver could’ve used this as a teaching moment to the league’s future generations, he instead decided to allow the ugly underbelly of the NBA to flourish. Hopefully, it won’t take an injury to one of the league’s premiere stars for the commissioner’s office to realize the error of their ways.

Three storylines to watch in the NBA’s second half

Despite not being the true halfway point of the NBA season, the All-Star break acts as a functional intermission to a grueling 82 game season. Teams use their week long break to rest key players, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and prepare for the final stretch of the regular season. As the NBA returns on Thursday, let’s look at three storylines that will define the rest of the season.

Can the Raptors stay atop the Eastern Conference?

At the break, the Toronto Raptors are the number one seed in the East with a 41-16 record. They are two games up on the 40-19 Boston Celtics, and have a sizable 6.5-game lead over the retooled Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptors won seven straight heading into All Star weekend, and own the NBA’s best home record at 24-4. They have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, and the third-best defensive rating, making them the only team in the league to appear in the top five of both categories. Finally, they have the second-best net rating in the league, squarely in between the first-place Houston Rockets and the third-place Golden State Warriors. They are the only three teams to have a net rating above 8. The fourth-best net rating is owned by the Celtics, who clock in at 3.7.

By every conceivable metric the Raptors are one of the league’s elite teams and a serious threat to win it all. But, despite all the resounding statistical analysis, there is still the perception that this Raptors team as presently constructed is simply not talented enough to hang with the NBA’s elite. Their two biggest stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, have storied histories of playoff ineptitude and inability to produce when their teams need it most. The Raptors have made the playoffs for four straight years, making the conference finals only once in 2016. Conceivably, with the Cavs’ season in constant flux and the Celtics appearing to hit a wall, the Raptors should be favorites to advance to their first ever NBA finals. If they continue to play as well as they did before the break, there’s no reason why they can’t.

Which team will claim the league’s worst record? 

With nine teams owning a winning percentage below .400, the race for the best lottery odds will be one of historic proportions. Never before have so many teams willingly accepted their fate as bad teams and so blatantly tried to obtain as poor a record as possible. There a multitude of factors that explain why this tanking epidemic has reached an all time. One possible reason is the NBA’s decision to revamp the lottery odds for next season, lowering the odds of the three worst teams obtaining the first pick. This incentivizes teams to be as bad as possible now, when the chances of obtaining a top pick are slightly better for the worst teams. Another reason is the quality of the upcoming draft class. By my estimations, the top six of this year’s class is one of the strongest in recent memory, with prospects like Luka Doncic, DeAndre Ayton, and Marvin Bagley possessing franchise altering ability. Teams like the Phoenix Suns or the Atlanta Hawks are searching for the generational type talent needed to win a championship, and picking towards the top of the draft increases their chances of getting one.

As of now, the Suns and the Hawks are tied for the league’s worst record at 18-41. Just behind them lurk the 18-40 Dallas Mavericks, who’s outspoken owner Mark Cuban recently stated that “losing is our best option.” Rounding out the top five are the Orlando Magic and the Sacramento Kings, who are tied for the NBA’s fourth worst record at 18-39. The New York Knicks, who are a little late to the party but made up for lost time by losing eight straight heading into the All-Star break, seem hell bent on sneaking their way in to the top five. These teams, and a handful of other inept franchises will look to remain hapless for the rest of the season in the hopes of obtaining their next franchise player. Thankfully, NBA twitter has already created some incredible hashtags to commemorate a tank job well done, including #LoseForLuka, #WaitinForAyton, and my personal favorite, #SecureTheBagley.

How will the Western Conference standings shake out?

As many expected, the Rockets and the Warriors have solidified themselves at the top of the Western Conference standings, and don’t appear to be leaving any time soon. After that though, there are a group of eight teams fighting for the six remaining playoff spots. Some of those teams, like the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves, will almost certainly make the playoffs and are merely fighting for seeding. Other teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and the scorching hot Utah Jazz are simply trying to get in. After the Spurs and Timberwolves, who currently are in third and fourth place respectively, the playoff picture gets very murky. The Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at five, but are only a mere 2.5 games ahead of the tenth place Jazz. In between them, in order, stand the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and the Clippers. All six of those teams are supremely talented, but have serious limitations that will likely keep them out of title contention. Yet, a surprise conference Finals run for any of these teams is not out of the question.

Whichever teams nab the final two playoff spots will probably face a swift and painless elimination and the hands of the Rockets and Warriors respectively. But, the 3-6 matchup and the 4-5 matchup will likely be closely contested series that will come down to a handful of possessions. Personally, I would be ecstatic to see the playoff series as they currently stand. The three seeded Spurs would play the sixth seeded Nuggets while the fourth seeded Timberwolves would host the fifth seeded Thunder.

Spurs Nuggets would be a fantastic series simply for their contrasting styles. The Nuggets have one of the league’s deeper and more talented rosters, but lack a traditional superstar. Nikola Jokic is one of the best players in the league, but in a playoff series where the opponent is well rested and focusing in on his strengths and weaknesses there are serious concerns about his ability to lead a team. Denver also has a pair of players, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, who complement each other extremely well and form one of the league’s premiere young backcourts. Harris has turned in to one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders, and a knockdown shooter. Murray has made impressive strides in his sophomore season, taking on more lead guard responsibility while not sacrificing his incredible offensive gifts. The Spurs on the other hand continue to be the model of excellence in the NBA. Coach Gregg Popovich once again has constructed a title-contending roster out of spare parts he found at home. The inconsistent health of star Kawhi Leonard should have been a death sentence to this Spurs team, but Pop has continued to churn out victories with players like Dejonte Murray and Bryn Forbes contributing heavy minutes. The Spurs are once again one of the league’s elite defensive units, ranking second in defensive rating, and will only get better when Leonard returns. For now, they slow the game down, limit your possessions, and rely on the reinvigorated Lamarcus Aldridge to lead their offense.

A Timberwolves Thunder series could be a first round matchup for the ages if the stars were to align. Both teams are choked full of elite talents who can take over the game at any time. In OKC, the Thunder seem to have found their groove after some early season troubles. Russell Westbrook continues to wreak havoc on defenses with his ungodly athleticism, but seems less focused this season on averaging a triple double. Paul George has settled in to his role as the team’s de facto number two, playing well off of Westbrook and creating his own shot when necessary. The odd man out on the Thunder is Carmelo Anthony, who has yet to truly find his spot on the team. He is averaging career lows across the board while still contributing little on the defensive end. He is useful in end of clock situations, but beyond that Anthony’s spot would be better filled by someone who didn’t need the ball in their hand to help their team win. The loss of Andre Roberson is a brutal one, but the combination of Terrance Ferguson and Alex Abrines off the bench should be enough come playoff time. The TWolves are in a similar position to the Thunder in that their roster is very top heavy, meaning they have the stars just not the depth. Jimmy Butler has adjusted well to his new life in Minnesota, putting up strong offensive numbers while playing his usual stellar defense. Karl Anthony Towns has continued his evolution on the offensive end of the floor, improving his three point shooting ability thus transforming him into one of the more dominant offensive forces in the game. On the defensive end, he still struggles with coach Tom Thibodeau’s complex defensive strategies and often looks out of place. But, when he puts full effort forth he has the ability to transform a defense. Much of the same can be said about Minnesota’s third star, Andrew Wiggins. One of the league’s best athletes, Wiggins has yet to truly put all of his gifts together. He remains raw, he is still only 22, but has shown flashes of dominance on both ends of the floor. Overall, a Thunder Timberwolves matchup would pit two talented yet flawed teams against each other in what would be an epic first round series.

As the All-Star break comes and goes, playoff basketball appears faint in the distance. For some, it indicates the end of their season as they shift their attention to a handful of ping pong balls. For others, the playoffs signify a second season. A time when dreams become realities and legacies are cemented. Their time is coming, but for now, they must wait.