USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis explains that the player most likely to go No. 1 in this hyped quarterback draft class isn’t a quarterback. USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS — The scouting combine is supposed to provide one final, level playing field — theoretically — for NFL draft prospects to compete while being evaluated by all 32 teams. But Saquon Barkley, whom we pegged as the top pick in our mock draft more than a month ago, proved to be a man among boys during his workout at Lucas Oil Stadium and somehow managed to elevate his lofty stock. Asked if the Giants should take the Penn State star with the second overall selection, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock replied, “Saquon Barkley — if he’s there at two — is the most obvious choice in the draft. He’s special. He’s different. He’s all those things.”
And based on what we saw and heard during the combine, we think Barkley may wind up atop a lot more mock drafts — and, just maybe, the actual one.
Note: This mock draft is an updated version of our original post-combine entry and takes into account Monday’s trade between the Bengals and Bills that changed the first-round order as well as other recent moves around the league. Changed picks are noted with an asterisk (*).
1. Browns — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Some draft observers suggested his combine performance might have been the most impressive ever. The NFL Research Twitter account provided this context for the 6-foot, 233-pounder when comparing his numbers against those posted by recent all-pros in Indianapolis: Stronger than Joe Thomas, quicker than DeSean Jackson, faster than Devin Hester, jumps higher than Julio Jones. As crucial as quarterbacks are, how do you pass on talent like this, especially when you also own the fourth overall pick? Barkley’s persona also suggests he will have little trouble assuming the mantle of “face of the franchise,” and he embraces the challenge of turning around a franchise like Cleveland’s. He should be every bit as good as recent first-round backs (Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette), and placing Barkley in a backfield that’s about to lose leading rusher Isaiah Crowell to free agency alongside a rookie quarterback — remember what Elliott did for Dak Prescott in 2016 — could be the optimum way to ease a young passer’s transition … and would certainly put a smile on Tyrod Taylor’s face if he opens 2018 as the starter under center. But take this to the bank: Cleveland will only get one crack at Barkley, and this is it.
2. Giants — Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: He didn’t throw at the combine, which could make him a perfect candidate for the Giants, who probably wouldn’t need him to throw a regular-season pass in 2018, either. New GM Dave Gettleman would probably love to get a shot at Barkley and will probably be tempted to add Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson, one of his beloved “hog mollies,” to what may be the league’s worst offensive line. But at the end of the day, it’s rare for the Giants to be in position to draft a franchise passer — they haven’t had a top-five selection since they wound up with Eli Manning in 2004. Though Manning, 37, may have another year or two in his tank, this is too good an opportunity to enact a bona fide succession plan, especially considering Darnold’s estimable upside and a low-key demeanor (like Manning’s) that would probably
3. Colts — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: With all signs pointing toward Andrew Luck’s return, they’re one of the few teams at the top of a quarterback-rich draft that doesn’t appear to actually need one. GM Chris Ballard will almost certainly be fielding calls from teams like the Cardinals and Bills for what could be a very coveted spot. But Ballard also badly needs to reload a supporting cast — Barkley and Nelson would be ideal fits — that has too often let Luck down in recent years. Chubb looks like the pre-eminent pass rusher in a draft that seems deficient at this highly coveted position. And if Luck can revert to form and start putting points on the scoreboard, a guy like Chubb — remember how Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis did this back in the day for Peyton Manning — is the type of defensive game changer who can protect leads.
4. Browns (from Texans) — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Good luck finding better arm talent, and Allen put his hose on display to the world with a 70-yard hook-up during the combine’s passing drills. Arm strength isn’t necessarily a good indicator of success in the pros — just ask JaMarcus Russell — where decision making and accuracy are far more valuable attributes. However a big arm does count for something in Cleveland’s windy, lake-side atmosphere (not to mention tough conditions that arise in every other AFC North city), and new GM John Dorsey is the guy who traded up to get Patrick Mahomes’ howitzer for the Chiefs a year ago. Allen drew positive reviews in Indy, and his workout may have started to ease concerns about his 56% completion rate in Laramie, where he ran a pro-style offense but didn’t benefit from a ton of checkdown throws and was victimized by more than his share of drops.
5. Broncos — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Few teams appear as poised to win immediately as Denver, home to a stout defense (even minus CB Aqib Talib) and a pair of Pro Bowl wideouts — if GM John Elway can solve the quarterback dilemma that has existed since Peyton Manning retired two years ago. Adding veteran Case Keenum is a step in the right direction but likely only part of the puzzle. Rosen is widely viewed as the most NFL-ready passer coming out and seemed to allay some fears at the combine that his personality won’t mesh in a pro locker room, though a veteran-laden one like Denver’s (with Keenum added in a mentorship capacity) might be a plus for a 21-year-old assimilating into the working world. Rosen’s football arrogance and belief he can make any throw — think former Broncos QB Jay Cutler — may be the bigger issue for him to
6. Jets — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: This might be a good spot to pause and acknowledge that the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes — the Jets are expected to be among the serious suitors — could greatly influence the top of the board, as free agency generally will shape the draft once veterans can begin switching teams Wednesday. But the Jets, who have had five different leading passers in the decade since they moved on from Chad Pennington, are still searching for a long-term answer to what’s become a perennial problem. Mayfield’s fiery persona and willingness to lead would theoretically fit well on a young team that needs an alpha male on offense.
7. Buccaneers — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: No team was worse at stopping the pass in 2017 than Tampa Bay, which is also set to lose CB Brent Grimes and S T.J. Ward in free agency. Enter Fitzpatrick, part of the breed of versatile young defensive backs who can roam deep like a safety, blitz like a linebacker and cover like a corner, especially in the slot. He’d definitely be a valuable asset in a division where the ball is so frequently in the air.
8. Bears — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Per Mayock, Barkley and Nelson are the two best players in a draft dominated by the quarterback conversation. Chicago has a Pro Bowl-sized hole on its O-line after declining G Josh Sitton’s option for 2018. Nelson will almost certainly be an upgrade, even when compared to an accomplished vet like Sitton, and has vowed to make a roomier pocket for his next quarterback, something Mitchell Trubisky would certainly appreciate in his second season.
9. 49ers — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: He can run all day and would form a nice three-down tandem with 2017 first rounder Reuben Foster as San Francisco transitions to a 4-3 defense that emphasizes rangy linebackers. And with 6½ sacks last year, Smith (6-1, 236) should also be an effective blitzer.
10. Raiders — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: At 6-5, 253 pounds, he’s bigger than Smith yet nearly as athletic. Edmunds racked up 30½ tackles for loss over
the past two seasons and is just the kind of asset a disappointing Oakland defense, ranked 23rd in 2017, badly needs. Only 19, Edmunds’ upside is insane.
11. Dolphins — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: The latest entry from a Buckeyes corner pipeline that’s produced three first rounders (Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple) in the past two drafts. Miami’s vulnerability at corner becomes apparent in games when opponents aren’t running the ball incessantly. And it always helps to have good cover guys in a division ruled by Tom Brady.
*12. Bills (from Bengals) — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: Buffalo agreed to send LT Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati on Monday in order to move up the board nine spots. Maybe GM Brandon Beane is satisfied … or maybe, similar to Philadelphia GM Howie Roseman’s approach two years ago, Beane is treating pick No. 12 as a way station before jumping up further — Indianapolis’ spot at third overall must be enticing — in a gambit to get the franchise passer to replace since-traded Taylor. For now, let’s assume Beane stays put. He could definitely use a pass rusher like Davenport — coach Sean McDermott’s defense relies on the front four to apply pressure — given only two teams had fewer sacks than the Bills’ 27 in 2017.
The Buffalo Bills have reportedly traded starting left tackle Cordy Glenn to the Bengals in exchange for draft picks. Time
13. Redskins — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: No team gave up more yards on the ground last season than Washington, which was also gashed for a ghastly 4.5 yards every time an opponent handed off. Teaming Vea (6-4, 347) with 2017 first rounder Jonathan Allen, who only played five games as a rookie, would go a long way toward remedying this weakness, especially with D-line guru Jim Tomsula around to shepherd the youngsters’ development.
*14. Packers — Derwin James, S, Florida State: He was willing to tell anyone who would listen at the combine that he was a top-10 pick and 100% over the knee injury that scuttled his 2016 season and admittedly led to a slow start last year. James did seem to be in top form during drills and is the kind of chess piece — dime linebacker, box safety, deep safety, nickel corner — that coordinators love. Green Bay’s secondary makeover is already underway (opposing quarterbacks had a collective 102.0 passer rating against the Pack, the worst showing by an NFC defense) and teaming James with FS Ha-Ha Clinton Dix would certainly put a smile on new defensive boss Mike Pettine’s face.
15. Cardinals — Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Arizona desperately needs a quarterback but doesn’t presently seem to have the cap room to make a serious play for Cousins and probably lacks the requisite draft position to get one of the top prospects. Maybe they can find a way to trade up, or maybe they move back a bit to get Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. But if they hold at No. 15, Payne could be the right value, an immensely strong player who would inject youth into an aging front, eating blocks that free guys like NFL sack champ Chandler Jones and former first rounder Robert Nkemdiche.
16. Ravens — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: He appears to be the best of what seems to be a relatively weak crop of receivers — and even the best at this position usually struggle adapting to the NFL. Ridley is probably equipped to step into the slot, but it’s probably a stretch to earmark him as a No. 1 target on Day 1. Regardless, Baltimore needs the help.
*17. Chargers — Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: He’s been one of the hotter prospects coming out of combine week. No AFC team struggled more to stop the run than the Bolts, and GM Tom Telesco has admitted needing more production and reliability from his linebackers. Evans is the kind of heat seeker who can fill the gaps sometimes opened by aggressive edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
18. Seahawks — Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida: Whether it’s adapting to life after Richard Sherman or simply replacing Byron Maxwell, Seattle could use corner help. And with no picks in Rounds 2 or 3, the Seahawks only have one shot to get a good player at a premium position.
*19. Cowboys — Taven Bryan, DT, Florida: He could form a nice inside-out combination with franchise-tagged DE Demarcus Lawrence, whose 14½ sacks in 2017 was nearly 40% of Dallas’ total. Rod Marinelli’s defense operates at a higher level when it has disruptive penetrator like Bryan working the middle.
20. Lions — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Fournette’s former backup at LSU could be just the physical presence needed by a Detroit team that has ranked 28th or worse running the ball over the past four seasons and was dead last in 2015 and ’17.
*21. Bengals (from Bills) — James Daniels, C, Iowa: Though Glenn is joining the fold, Cincinnati’s O-line woes won’t be fixed by one addition. Daniels would be an improvement in the pivot over Russell Bodine, who’s headed for free agency.
*22. Bills (from Chiefs) — Connor Williams, OT, Texas: Buffalo now has a hole to fill on the blind side with Glenn’s departure. Williams could help a front that’s in major transition after also losing C Eric Wood to retirement.
*23. Rams — Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: This team doesn’t have many holes after an already active offseason, but it is losing deep threat WR Sammy Watkins. After running a 4.47 40 at the combine, Kirk seems capable of filling that role and developing into a potential No. 1 target in the not-too-distant future.
*24. Panthers — Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: He was one of the combine’s stars after blazing a 4.38 40-yard dash. Carolina has struggled at this position ever since parting with Josh Norman two years ago and is now giving up on Daryl Worley. Previous GM Dave Gettleman didn’t put a premium on corners, but replacement Marty Hurney probably can’t afford to ignore this void any longer, especially in the quarterback-studded NFC South.
25. Titans — Sony Michel, RB, Georgia: Derrick Henry will take over as the primary back in 2018, but Tennessee could use a shiftier outside runner who’s likely to be more of a factor in the passing game. Michel, who averaged 8 yards per touch last season, seems to be in the mold of Alvin Kamara.
*26. Falcons — Will Hernandez, G, Texas-El Paso: Veteran Andy Levitre was banged up in 2017, and Atlanta struggled to replace retired vet Chris Chester. Hernandez would fortify the blocking in front of Matt Ryan immediately and well into the future.
*27. Saints — Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford: Strong as a bull (combine-high 42 reps on the bench), smart as a whip (graduated early from Palo Alto with a double major) and scheme versatile, Phillips also comes with an ever-revving motor that would cause quite a bit of interior disruption between Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins.
*28. Steelers — Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama: No, he’s not the next Troy Polamalu, but Harrison would be a nice fit for a Pittsburgh defense ready to move on from volatile Mike Mitchell.
29. Jaguars — DJ Moore, WR, Maryland: Jacksonville opted not to tag Allen Robinson, increasing the need for them to reload at receiver with Marqise Lee also poised to leave. Moore is one of the risers coming out of the combine after posting a 4.42 40, the kind of speed that could also create space for the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.
30. Vikings — Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: For a team that will be making some kind of re-investment at quarterback (Cousins? Sam Bradford?), improved O-line play is probably imperative. McGlinchey represents a nice value and would allow Mike Remmers to kick inside to guard.
*31. Patriots — Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: A man with a nose for the ball (8 INTs in 2017) would help a team that picked off just 12 passes and now needs to replace Malcolm Butler.
32. Eagles — Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh: Jason Peters is 36 and only lasted seven games last season. Philadelphia would be wise to begin eyeing a next-gen blind side bodyguard for Carson Wentz.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis