The draft is the most important event on the NFL calendar. Starting Thursday, the decisions your team makes in the seven rounds will have more impact on their Super Bowl prospects than any other decisions. In a salary-capped league, teams can’t remain competitive and go after big free agents, retain their star players or pay the franchise quarterback if the players they draft can’t contribute at a high level under their rookie contract. If the drafted players don’t outplay their rookie contracts for their full four-year duration, the team will fail. So your team can’t afford too many mistakes.
Don’t panic. I am here to help. Please feel free to forward this to your team’s front office. This is not my prediction of how the first round will go — this is how it should go.
1. Arizona Cardinals
Kyler Murray, quarterback, Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield’s rookie season was the best possible advertisement for Kyler Murray. One season after Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy as Oklahoma’s quarterback, Murray did the same thing at the same school with almost identical passing stats and a better running ability. Although it’s still hard to justify the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona using conventional criteria, if the Cardinals bring in Murray, they can point to the long-standing relationship between Murray and Kingsbury and the similarities between the offensive schemes to which both are accustomed.
Picking Murray, however, comes with some risk for the Cardinals, who traded up to draft Josh Rosen in the first round last year. Rosen was dropped into one of the worst possible situations for a young quarterback, and the team doesn’t really know how good he could become. If Rosen succeeds elsewhere and Murray isn’t a franchise-changing quarterback, this will go down as one of the worst offseasons in NFL history.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Nick Bosa, defensive end, Ohio State
Notwithstanding a 4-12 record in 2018, the San Francisco 49ers are in an enviable position. They have a high draft pick and are already set at the quarterback position. But with a lot invested in Jimmy Garoppolo, they must draft well to make a run at the title soon. Assuming Garoppolo plays as well as his $137.5 million contract portends, that leaves very little cap space for the 49ers to go after impact players in free agency and re-sign the key players on their roster. So general manager John Lynch needs to find several solid players in the draft.
Trading back to accumulate more picks is worth considering, but I don’t imagine there will be much of a market, considering how few teams are in need of a quarterback and the lack of excitement for the quarterbacks in this class not named Kyler Murray. Otherwise, the pick is obvious. Nick Bosa is the consensus best player in this draft. He is a refined pass rusher from an NFL family. Putting him opposite Dee Ford improves the entire defense instantly.
3. New York Jets
Josh Allen, outside linebacker, Kentucky
Nothing makes your team a title contender faster than having a good quarterback under a rookie contract. The New York Jets may have that in Sam Darnold, which puts them in “win now” mode. Now they need to fill holes. While teams drafting at No. 3 overall normally should be looking for a quarterback or the best available player, instead of filling a need, the Jets might be in luck: One of the best available players also fills a need.
Allen is good against the run and has the lateral quickness and athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs on early downs. But those are bonuses. Allen’s ability to speed around offensive tackles and pressure passers is his best asset, and it’s exactly what the Jets need. Last season, the Jets were 21st in quarterback pressure rate and 27th in opponents’ time in the pocket. To compensate for their absence of pass rushers, the Jets weakened their secondary by blitzing on 32% of dropbacks, sixth most in the league. Adding Allen could change that and be the key that unlocks this otherwise talented, underachieving defense.
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The Jets could also look to get a comparable player later in the draft and use this pick to address a position of scarcity. But unless they trade back into the draft — they traded away their second-round pick for the opportunity to draft Darnold last year — this will be their only opportunity to get one of the promising edge players in this class.
4. Oakland Raiders*
Quinnen Williams, defensive tackle, Alabama
Despite acquiring veteran receiver Antonio Brown, Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden is building for the future. Quinnen Williams, the Outland Trophy winner, is by far the best interior defensive lineman in the draft. Coming from Alabama, aka Uncle Nick’s NFL minor league program, Williams has been acquainted with a reasonable facsimile of the mental and emotional rigors of life as a pro. He is the ideal size, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 303 pounds. And he showed astonishing speed at the combine, running a 4.83-second 40 with a 1.67-second 10-yard split. That puts him in the company of All-Pro players such as Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald.
Alternatively, this could be the perfect time to draft and begin grooming the Raiders’ next quarterback. Gruden has shown little confidence in quarterback Derek Carr, who has more than a $20 million cap hit over the next three seasons. If the Raiders move on from Carr after this season, they would have only $5 million in dead money.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dwayne Haskins, quarterback, Ohio State
As much as having a good young quarterback on a cheap contract can make a team a contender, paying a mediocre quarterback top-tier money can paralyze a franchise. With Jameis Winston becoming a free agent at season’s end, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the verge of walking into that trap. His issues with turnovers will keep them from Super Bowl contention.
Dwayne Haskins is the prototypical pocket passer, with an impressive arm. He put up eye-popping stats in his only season as OSU’s starter, throwing for 4,831 yards and 50 touchdowns. But the stat that should really appeal to the Bucs is his low number of interceptions: eight. If Haskins is capable of limiting interceptions while maintaining a willingness to attack downfield, the Bucs will be much better off.
6. New York Giants*
Montez Sweat, defensive end, Mississippi State
Even the most optimistic New York Giants supporters know Eli Manning is not the quarterback of the future. But the remaining draftable quarterbacks don’t warrant being selected at No. 6. The Giants, however, have plenty of other holes to fill, two of which were recently created when they traded wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and outside linebacker Olivier Vernon to the Cleveland Browns.
General manager Dave Gettleman addressed Beckham’s departure by signing Golden Tate. Now he should draft Sweat to replace Vernon. Although Vernon is listed as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he functioned more like a 4-3 defensive end in the Giants’ scheme, dropping into coverage on only 13 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. So Sweat should be a perfect replacement. At 6 feet, 6 inches and 260 pounds, Sweat became a combine darling when he ran the 40 in 4.41 seconds, the fastest for a defensive lineman. But he wasn’t just an underwear All-Star. Last season, he had 11.5 sacks and outplayed Alabama’s Jonah Williams, the top offensive tackle in the draft.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jonah Williams, offensive lineman, Alabama
Signing Nick Foles to a four-year contract with $50 million guaranteed was a major move in what should be an offense-focused offseason in Jacksonville. With this pick they should better protect their investment at quarterback by adding the best tackle in the draft.
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ O-line is both weak and thin. If they don’t end the first round with a Week 1 starting O-lineman, then they are effectively burning the money they’ve committed to Foles, right along with their Super Bowl aspirations. Last season, Williams gave up only 12 quarterback pressures and zero sacks while blocking many of the best pass rushers in the draft: Sweat, Clelin Ferrell, Brian Burns. He won’t be unbeatable in the NFL, but he is an upgrade.
8. Detroit Lions*
Andraez ‘Greedy’ Williams, cornerback, LSU
Having two cornerbacks who are reliable in man coverage is the key to the deepest recess of the defensive playbook, where you can find the unusual plays that coordinators rarely have the confidence to call. If the Lions draft Williams, the best man coverage corner in the draft, to play opposite Darius Slay, they will have a pair of corners they can trust, which will serve them well in a division with Aaron Rodgers on the Green Bay Packers and the receiver tandem of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in Minnesota.
9. Buffalo Bills
Christian Wilkins, defensive lineman, Clemson
Last season the Buffalo Bills had one of the league’s best defenses, so they’ve sought to improve their offense through free agency this year. But with this pick they should turn back to the defense and bolster their front with Christian Wilkins. He is an explosive athlete who excels at interior pass rushing. This is not necessarily a high-need area, but D-line depth is a proven strategy for success in the modern NFL.
10. Denver Broncos*
Ed Oliver, defensive lineman, Houston
The Denver Broncos could go after a linebacker to replace Brandon Marshall, who departed for Oakland this offseason. But I’d rather see them add Oliver to their already fearsome front of Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and Derek Wolfe. If Oliver’s inside pass rush translates to the NFL, then the Broncos will be unblockable on passing downs, forcing offenses to keep tight ends and running backs in to block, throw quick passes, or open their quarterback up to a beating.
11. Cincinnati Bengals
Devin White, linebacker, LSU
In March, Cincinnati released linebacker Vontaze Burfict. This in itself is not a big deal, considering 2013 was the last time Burfict played in 16 games and last season he played in just seven. But with or without Burfict, the Bengals need help at linebacker.
Devin White is a sure tackler who has 4.4 speed and the agility to cover or blitz against passing personnel groups. He sees the big picture and diagnoses plays like a quarterback on defense.
12. Green Bay packers*
Devin Bush, linebacker, Michigan
With first-year head coach Matt LaFleur taking over, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers look to add an offensive weapon. Pairing Aaron Rodgers’ precision passing with a shifty slot receiver would be a nightmare for slot corners (think Tom Brady to Julian Edelman). But given what the Packers invested in Jimmy Graham, the receiving tight end should be the focus of their middle-field targets.
I’d suggest the Packers go defense with this pick. At Michigan, Bush was comfortable against tight ends and backs in the passing game. He played with a fury and speed that the Packers’ defense needs. With the return from injury of top-notch interior linemen Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark and the addition of free-agent outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, this defense is primed to take a leap if it plugs Devin Bush in the middle. His addition to the defense is likely to be more impactful than any available offensive player could be for the Pack.
13. Miami Dolphins
Jawaan Taylor, offensive lineman, Florida
The Miami Dolphins are in full rebuild mode. And though I’m sure new coach Brian Flores and his team want to win, having the worst record in the league would probably be the best thing for the future of this organization. That would secure them the top pick in next year’s draft and the right to select quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
With that in mind, they shouldn’t take any of the remaining quarterbacks, who don’t appear to be good enough to build a franchise around. Selecting an O-lineman like Taylor isn’t going to get fans excited, but he will be a good building block for the future. Jawaan Taylor is an imposing figure who excels in run blocking and has the footwork to play tackle or guard. And he won’t inhibit their chances of being bad enough to get Tagovailoa next year.
14. Atlanta Falcons
Dexter Lawrence, defensive tackle, Clemson
Dexter Lawrence would be an immediate contributor, but the most enticing benefit of drafting Lawrence wouldn’t come until 2020. If Lawrence proves to be a reasonable Grady Jarrett replacement, the Atlanta Falcons could allow Jarrett to leave next offseason and avoid signing him to the $100 million deal he deserves. That would free up cap space and the franchise tag to be used on the other defensive starters, who will be expecting contracts in 2020.
Lawrence’s size, at more than 340 pounds, could be concerning, but he isn’t just a big body. He has drawn comparisons to Haloti Ngata, one of the most fluid defensive linemen weighing more than 330 pounds in the contemporary NFL. Lawrence’s size makes him stout against the run, but it doesn’t stop him from getting to the passer. He had 33 total pressures last season. And if there is any team that could use some size, it’s the Falcons, who have a couple of undersized starters in their front seven in defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Deion Jones.
15. Washington Redskins
Byron Murphy, cornerback, Washington
Washington’s offseason of zealous acquisitions started before the season was even over. In November, the team claimed controversial linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers. In March, it went on to address other weaknesses by trading for Case Keenum and signing Landon Collins to a six-year contract with almost $45 million guaranteed.
In the draft, Washington should stay focused on the secondary. Although Josh Norman is under contract for two more seasons, his play has begun to wane. And Byron Murphy, who is best in zone coverage and more than capable in man, will help right away and could be poised to replace Norman as the top cornerback when the time comes.
16. Carolina Panthers
Clelin Ferrell, defensive end, Clemson
In the past two drafts, the Carolina Panthers used their first-round picks on offensive weapons, selecting Christian McCaffrey (2017) and D.J. Moore (2018). This year’s first-round pick should be used on a defensive weapon.
Though Clelin Ferrell’s best skill is rushing the passer, he combines his speed with nonstop effort to make plays all over the field.
17. New York Giants* (via Cleveland Browns)
Andre Dillard, offensive tackle, Washington State
The Giants have prioritized repairing their offensive line, which is why they traded for right guard Kevin Zeitler in March. To get the best out of Zeitler, the Giants would be well-served to pair him with Andre Dillard, a talented young tackle. Dillard might turn out to be the best pass-protecting tackle in the draft because of his great feet and awareness when dealing with stunts.
18. Minnesota Vikings
Brian Burns, defensive end, FSU
The Minnesota Vikings have one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. The offensive line is the only place where they need upgrades. But I wouldn’t use this pick to address that. I’d suggest selecting FSU defensive end Brian Burns. In most other drafts, he could go in the top 10. But there is a chance he could slip to the back end of this unusually deep draft for edge players. And if he somehow makes it to 18, the Vikings shouldn’t waste any time. Although it’s not an urgent area of need, it’d be prudent to add depth here.
19. tennessee titans
T.J. Hockenson, tight end, Iowa
Hockenson is a tenacious blocker and above-average receiver. In a league where specialization is becoming more common, a well-rounded player like Hockenson allows for the type of scheme flexibility that the Titans would covet.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers
Cody Ford, offensive lineman, Oklahoma
While the Pittsburgh Steelers have had some high-profile roster turnover since last offseason, it is the low-profile departure of Marcus Gilbert that they need to address with this pick. If James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster have any chance of replicating the sustained excellence of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, they’ll need that front five to maintain its place as one of the most reliable units in the league.
In college, Cody Ford played guard and tackle. He showed the ability to pull and run well in the screen game and used his 82.5-inch wingspan effectively in pass protection. Though he isn’t unbeatable when pass blocking at tackle, he is certainly good enough to be a starting NFL right tackle. He would have to compete with undrafted three-year vet Matt Feiler, whose performance last season is likely part of the reason the Steelers felt comfortable parting ways with Gilbert. But I still think Ford would be a prudent pickup because O-line play is the single most important factor in this team’s success, and O-line injuries are inevitable.
21. Seattle Seahawks
Rashan Gary, defensive end, Michigan
Now that Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks have come to terms on a sizable contract extension for the future Hall of Fame quarterback, the ‘Hawks can turn their attention to the rest of the roster. Getting a player here that could better protect Wilson would make sense. Last season, Wilson was sacked 51 times; only three quarterbacks were sacked more often. However, it would be a big reach to select any of the remaining offensive linemen at this spot.
Instead, I think the Seahawks, a team known for getting the most out of high-potential defenders, should select Gary. At 6 feet, 4 inches and 277 pounds, Rashan Gary is both powerful and light on his feet. His combine performance was enough to make defensive coordinators drool. But his meager production at Michigan is puzzling and the reason I’d be hesitant to draft him earlier, unless the situation is perfect. In Seattle, it is perfect. His ability to play anywhere on the D-line and drop into coverage with 90th-percentile athleticism for his size is too enticing to ignore. If Pete Carroll and the Seahawks’ culture can unlock Gary’s elite traits, he will be a perennial Pro Bowler.
22. Baltimore Ravens
Marquise Brown, wide receiver, Oklahoma Sooners
The Baltimore Ravens have almost all the pieces they need to double down on a strategy that has worked for them since the birth of the franchise: run the ball and play top-notch defense. But their offense needs another element to give opposing defenses something else to consider. That element should be Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
The Ravens will undoubtedly face a lot of man coverage and loaded boxes to stop the run. Brown has the speed and quickness to decimate one-on-one matchups in the slot or outside for deep passes down the field. He also has shown the ability to turn shallow crossing routes, an NFL staple, into big chunk plays. After catching passes at Oklahoma from Murray and Mayfield, Brown may have to adjust to receiving passes that are less than accurate from Lamar Jackson. But if he and Jackson can develop a connection, Brown could be exactly what this offense needs.
23. Houston Texans
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, safety, Florida
After losing safety Tyrann Mathieu to the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency, the Texans need secondary help. And Gardner-Johnson is the perfect man to fill that role because, like Mathieu, he is a hybrid who can be an extra linebacker in the box or play man coverage in the slot against shifty receivers.
Trying to draft a clone to fill in for a departed vet is often a fool’s errand. But as long as the Texans don’t expect Gardner-Johnson to be as impactful as Mathieu on day one, I think he will improve as the season progresses, eventually allowing the Texans the same defensive flexibility they enjoyed with Mathieu.
24. Oakland raiders* (VIA CHicago BEARS)
Deandre Baker, cornerback, Georgia
With three picks in the first round, Oakland is looking to make this draft the foundation of a championship team. To do that, the Raiders need young playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Deandre Baker fits the mold.
Baker was outstanding against high-quality SEC opponents. Although he is a cornerback, I could imagine him making the move to safety at some point. At more than 190 pounds, he is aggressive and physical. With a 4.5 40 and high-level coverage skills, Baker could be an exceptional safety if it is something he would consider.
25. Philadelphia Eagles
Dalton Risner, offensive lineman, Kansas State
The key to the Philadelphia Eagles’ success over the past few seasons has been line play. They’ve been dominant on both the offensive and defensive lines. To continue that dominance on the defensive line, they signed Malik Jackson. But they haven’t done much to solidify an offensive line anchored by 37-year-old Jason Peters.
Dalton Risner is the addition they need. He won’t be as good as Peters, but they don’t need him to be. Risner’s value is in his versatility. He has played well at every position on the line, and that ability gives the Eagles some much-needed depth.
26. Indianapolis Colts
Jeffery Simmons, defensive tackle, Mississippi State
Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard can do no wrong. His first two selections from the 2018 draft, guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, earned NFL All-Pro honors as rookies. While Jeffery Simmons likely won’t be able to repeat that feat, the Colts would benefit from adding him to their D-line rotation with Margus Hunt and Denico Autry.
Simmons is a very good player, but he does come with some major concerns. Before enrolling at Mississippi State, he was arrested in 2016 after video of him hitting a woman was uncovered.
27. Oakland Raiders* (Via Dallas Cowboys)
Jachai Polite, defensive end, Florida
The Oakland Raiders got a lot from the Bears when they traded away Khalil Mack before last season. But they gave up a lot too: their entire pass rush. The Raiders got sacks on only 2.7% of opponents’ pass attempts. That was the worst in the NFL last season. The team had only 13 sacks last season; 11 players had 13 or more in the NFL last season.
Jachai Polite would help. He isn’t a well-rounded edge player, so he may not be an every-down player, but his first step on passing downs will stress opposing tackles and worry quarterbacks, who were unfazed last season against Oakland. Quarterbacks who faced the Raiders threw for 8 net yards per pass attempt, the most against any defense.
28. Los Angeles Chargers
Chris Lindstrom, offensive lineman, Boston College
The Los Angeles Chargers are above average at every offensive position except for offensive line. While a tackle would be ideal, I doubt there will be any first-round-caliber tackles left. Fortunately for the Chargers, they need guards too.
Chris Lindstrom is a Week 1 starter who will give Phillip Rivers some peace of mind when he is distributing the ball to one of his many offensive weapons. Last season at Boston College, Lindstrom had zero blown pass blocks in 12 games. Expecting the same results at the NFL level may be a stretch, but he will make the Chargers better up front.
29. Kansas City
Julian Love, cornerback, Notre Dame
The Kansas City Chiefs’ defense wasn’t good last year, but it could be worse this season. It is absolutely less talented after releasing Justin Houston and trading Dee Ford. Signing Mathieu will give their defense some stability at safety, but they are going to need more considering what they lost.
Julian Love won’t help with their pass rush, but he can cover and has top-tier ball skills, which could result in turnovers. Those skills might be exactly what the Chiefs need, given that they have an offense that won’t have any trouble scoring and a defense that will definitely bend. Even if Love isn’t a lockdown corner, if he is able to give the Chiefs’ offense a few extra possessions to put up touchdowns, that could be enough to put a few games out of reach.
30. Green Bay* (via New Orleans)
A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Ole Miss
As long as Rodgers is healthy the Packers’ offense will be good, but why can’t it be great? Rodgers is as talented as Patrick Mahomes, right? Of course he is, and the Packers can have a Chiefs-esque offensive season in 2019 if the Packers surround him with top-level playmakers and coach Matt LaFleur can formulate an offensive scheme around those players. Despite his underwhelming production last season, tight end Jimmy Graham is exactly the right kind of player to have on the roster. But adding another middle-of-the-field threat will create space for Graham.
A.J. Brown should be that threat. Although he has not received as much attention as his college teammate and fellow receiver D.K. Metcalf, who is the size of a defensive end and runs a 4.4, Brown is the more well-rounded receiver. He runs sharp routes from the slot and is tough to tackle. He makes contested catches and finds holes in zones. If he lands in Green Bay, he won’t get a bunch of targets or catches, but the team could thrive because of what he can do on third downs opposite Graham.
31. lOs ANGELES RaMs
Garrett Bradbury, center, N.C. State
The Los Angeles Rams were active in free agency. Although they didn’t reel in as many big names as they did during 2018 free agency, they did secure some solid vets on short-term deals to fill most of their areas of need and extend their Super Bowl window. But the position that still feels uncertain is center.
This is about as straightforward as it gets. N.C. State’s Garrett Bradbury is a smart and technically sound player. The first-team All-American and Rimington Trophy winner was penalized only twice on 942 snaps last season. At just 6 feet, 3 inches and 306 pounds, Garrett can get pushed back, but in the Rams’ system his athleticism is more valued than girth. He will do well with the many zone run, play-action and screen concepts that the Rams use.
32. New England Patriots
D.K. Metcalf, wide receiver, Ole Miss
The Patriots are the unique champion team that has a returning roster with several holes. But I doubt it’ll stop them from being in the AFC Championship Game again next year. The Patriots rarely find themselves relying on young players; maybe that’s by design, or maybe it’s because they haven’t drafted that well. Either way, it puts them in a position to take some risks.
D.K. Metcalf is a giant receiver who can outrun and outjump most NFL cornerbacks. He is quick off the line and tracks the deep ball well. But he is stiff and not much of a threat on any short or intermediate routes. Metcalf could turn out to be the second coming of Calvin Johnson, which could have Pats fans remembering their 2007 offense with Randy Moss. But there is a chance that his limitations render him one-dimensional, and players like that don’t normally have a place on Patriots teams that seem to be optimized for versatility.