The world is full of mock drafts in April. Everyone is guessing and no one has any clue what the teams will actually do. In the fantasy world in particular skill position players are overrated, and expectations are that five receivers, three quarterbacks and three tight ends will all go in the first round at the expense of boring old offensive linemen or cornerbacks.
This annual mock draft attempts to redress the balance a little by looking at a defense-only scenario. If the first round in the NFL draft was only for players on the best side of the ball what would happen?
1. Arizona Cardinals – Nick Bosa, DE
Bosa is the best player in the draft. In a defense-only draft where quarterback is not a concern, he’s an easy selection for the Cards. At the moment they just need playmakers and Bosa is the most likely player in the draft to be a high-impact rookie.
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2. San Francisco 49ers – Greedy Williams, CB
The current 49ers starting corners are Ahkello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman. Neither is terrible but the 49ers decide here that upgrading to a high-class corner who will fit the scheme perfectly is the most sensible choice.
A pass-rusher was also considered but Williams’ fit is the deciding factor.
3. New York Jets – Josh Allen, OLB
The Jets were surprisingly a top-five team in total pressure in 2018. But the distribution was very odd. They were just 23rd in pressures from edge players. With Gregg Williams taking over the defense, a better outside pass rusher is an absolute necessity – and preferably one that is scheme-versatile. Williams says they’ll be more of an odd-front team in 2019 but that will likely change going into 2020.
Allen would instantly be the best edge player on the roster and would allow the defense to be far more unpredictable than they have been in recent years given his ability to play on the line of scrimmage, as an orthodox OLB or make plays in coverage.
4. Oakland Raiders – Brian Burns, DE
Compared to the Raiders, the Jets were an amazing pass rushing team in 2018. The Raiders were bottom of the NFL with just 146 total pressures. The Detroit Lions were 31st with 229. That is an enormous gap to be adrift of every other team. Ten teams had more than double the Raiders’ total pressures. Double!
As much as Quinnen Williams was super tempting here, Oakland just need outside pass rush and Brian Burns is the pick. He’s maybe the most technically developed pass rusher in the class and instantly changes how teams gameplan for Oakland.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Quinnen Williams, DE
Williams is one of the better players in this draft class and finally finds a new home where player quality trumps positional value. With the Buccaneers looking to move on from Gerald McCoy, Williams is a great fit. He’ll fit into the role that turned Calais Campbell into a star in Todd Bowles’ defense.
6. New York Giants – Byron Murphy, CB
Outside of Janoris Jenkins, the Giants are a talent wasteland at corner – one of the most premium positions in today’s NFL. Murphy is likely not a shut-down corner who can shadow opposition top receivers but he is a versatile and adaptable talent who can raise the entire level of this defense.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars – Nasir Adderley, S
The Jags defense regressed badly in 2018 (as predicted by DLF) and they’ve reset the team a bit. At the moment Ronnie Harrison is slated to take over at strong safety but with Tashaun Gipson gone, there’s a hole at free safety. Adderley will fit into that slot beautifully as the Jags try to get their defense back to the championship level it hit in 2017.
8. Detroit Lions – Montez Sweat, DE
As mentioned above, the Lions created less pressure than any team in 2018 bar the Raiders. Da’Shawn Hand did well on the edge but is a natural interior player and Ezekiel Ansah has departed (and is currently unemployed).
Montez Sweat is a spectacular athlete who broke the combine but he’s also a physical run defender who will set the edge with the discipline Matt Patricia has shown he requires.
9. Buffalo Bills – Ed Oliver, DT
Oliver is one of the more intriguing defensive talents in this class and a lovely fit in Buffalo where he’ll be expected to take over from team legend Kyle Williams.
He’ll be asked to simply be what he is in Buffalo – a top interior penetrator. The Bills defense is talented but lacks a bit of identity. Oliver could provide real impetus with some early success.
10. Denver Broncos – Devin White, LB
Josey Jewell and Todd Davis are currently atop the Broncos’ LB depth chart. That’s just asking for oppositions to pick them apart in the passing game. New head coach Vic Fangio pushed hard for Roquan Smith a year ago and clearly understands the need for mobile LBs in the modern NFL. White would fill that role beautifully.
11. Cincinnati Bengals – Justin Layne, CB
LB is a need for the Bengals too but they can likely find someone later in the draft. More pressing for them given the players on their roster is corner. William Jackson has one job locked down, but Dre Kirkpatrick and B.W. Webb are not good enough to reverse fortunes. Layne is an excellent athlete who is also scheme-versatile. Given the difficulties the Bengals had employing a defensive coordinator, this should be useful.
12. Green Bay Packers – Jerry Tillery, DE
Packers DC Mike Pettine is a Ryan family disciple and favors their exotic fronts and blitzes. The team has already heavily boosted their pass rush with Za’Darius and Preston Smith signed in free agency but Tillery gives them even more opportunity to come at the quarterback from all angles. Tillery is a ferocious pass rusher and would likely be the top interior player in many draft classes. With him onboard, the Packers will have one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL.
13. Miami Dolphins – Clelin Ferrell, DE
The Dolphins went into 2018 with what seemed like five legitimate edge players fighting for playing time. A year later, only one of them is still on the roster and it’s Charles Harris who has looked like a bust since he entered the league.
Ferrell would be an instant starter on this team and likely their top pass rusher. He’s not an elite athlete (in a class stacked with them) but plays with power and discipline and epitomizes the sort of edge players new head coach Bryan Flores is used to in New England and is likely after to help change the mindset in Miami.
14. Atlanta Falcons – Juan Thornhill, S
When Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen were both hurt in 2018, the Falcons defense really suffered. Any team would feel the loss of their starting safeties, but it was clear the Falcons’ backups were not good enough.
Thornhill is versatile enough to play in either spot as well as compete for playing time in the slot (where last year’s top option Brian Poole was let go). He should be a part-time player as a rookie but in 12 month’s time gives the team the option to move on from Allen at deep safety as his contract gets expensive.
15. Washington Redskins – Jachai Polite, OLB
With Preston Smith departed, the Redskins are in dire need of pass rush help. Ryan Anderson is no one’s idea of a quality starter.
Jachai Polite had a horrific combine/interview process which has scared some teams off, but he did put some ridiculous plays on tape as a senior which is enough to convince Washington he’s better than the alternatives. They’ve shown themselves to be more interested in production than style points over the past couple of years (Alex Smith and Mason Foster say hi).
16. Carolina Panthers – Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, DB
The Panthers have invested minimal resources into their secondary in recent years. The last safety they drafted before the fourth round left the team in 2003.
Gardner-Johnson is fantastically versatile and could end up playing at safety in the Panther’s 2-high heavy scheme. He could also be their primary nickelback (Captain Munnerlyn departed) or even do both. Regardless he’s a quality player and would add quality as well as increase their ability to disguise coverages.
17. New York Giants – Devin Bush, LB
How long has it been since the Giants had a good, reliable inside linebacker? Far too long. Alec Ogletree has looked as good as he ever has (i.e. not very) in blue and DC James Bettcher is still looking for a mobile player who he can trust in coverage.
Bush has shown the traits needed to excel in that role and would instantly be an upgrade on this defense.
18. Minnesota Vikings – Jeffrey Simmons, DT
With Sheldon Richardson departed, the Vikings are lacking interior pass rush. Fortunately, this is a great draft to add some. Simmons is an utter bargain here and should walk straight into a major role – even under Mike Zimmer who tends not to trust rookie defenders.
19. Tennessee Titans – Chase Winovich, OLB
The Titans added Harold Landry a year ago. Chase Winovich completes a pair of bookend defenders with Cam Wake the veteran presence to spell the two youths.
Winovich is a great fun player to watch but very different from Landry. Where Landry is all speed and smooth moves Winovich is spiky edges and relentlessness. Together they’ll be enormously exciting.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers – Amani Oruwariye, CB
The Steelers need help at the position after the failure of the Artie Burns pick a couple of years ago. Oruwariye is a polished player with elite instincts that should help him fit into the Steelers’ zone-heavy scheme.
21. Seattle Seahawks – Anthony Nelson, DE
Frank Clark is exciting, isn’t he? But who’s on the other edge from him? At the moment it’s Rasheem Green or Quinton Jefferson. Both decent players but not ones with high ceilings. Nelson is a big, long, powerful end who can fit beautifully into the Seahawks scheme as their Otto or big end. He’ll be less of a pure pass-rushing menace than Clark is but that never stopped Michael Bennett, did it?
22. Baltimore Ravens – Mack Wilson, LB
The Ravens simply could not fit the sort of contract C.J. Mosley got from the Jets within their cap structure. Which leaves them with Patrick Onwasor and Kenny Young as starting backers. That’s worrying.
Mack Wilson is surprisingly mobile and athletic. Although he’s not as good as some of the recent Alabama linebackers he should still be a solid player.
23. Houston Texans – Deandre Baker, CB
The Texans have a significant need at the premium position of corner and manage to nab the last remaining top-tier corner in this class. Baker should beat out the likes of Johnathon Joseph (well past his prime) and Johnson Bademosi quickly. Bradley Roby will play outside, and Aaron Colvin is the slot if he can stay healthy but Baker could win the other outside job.
24. Oakland Raiders – Rashan Gary, DE
The Raiders nabbed Brian Burns earlier in the round but their lack of pass rush is so acute they go straight back to the position here. Gary is a ridiculously talented athlete who never quite produced at elite levels. Perfect for Jon Gruden!
He’s a big gamble but Raiders fans will be happy to see that play out. It’ll certainly be a lot more fun than watching the dross that lined up at the position a year ago.
25. Philadelphia Eagles – Darnell Savage, S
The Eagles have a great roster situation and can afford to take talent rather than fill a need. They could do with a new linebacker but no one’s quite exciting enough here which means they can indulge themselves with a lively prospect on the back end.
Savage is very representative of the types of safety coming out of college these days. He’s versatile, flexible and far from typecast. He’ll be able to play both roles in the Eagles’ scheme when necessary as a rookie.
26. Indianapolis Colts – Christian Wilkins, DT
The Colts managed to cobble together an effective line last season, but it was a strange scheme. Wilkins is a huge man and in bygone years would be tabbed as a pure nose. But given it’s 2019, he also offers impressive pass rush. The Colts kick-started their defensive revolution a year ago in the draft – Wilkins would be another major piece.
27. Oakland Raiders – Rock Ya-Sin, CB
After picking two edge rushers already in this draft, the Raiders address their secondary. Ya-Sin is physical, aggressive and exciting to watch. He’ll be a nice counterpoint to Gareon Conley. Ya-Sin has got a little more love than he probably deserves due to his style and cool name but would definitely help Oakland.
28. Los Angeles Chargers – Deionte Thompson, S
The Chargers have some nice pieces on their defense, but it was not close to the deep, complete unit many thought it to be in 2018. The two major holes are defensive tackle and free safety. Of those positions, it’s harder to find a center-fielder and even though Thompson has some weaknesses, he can excel in that role behind Derwin James.
29. Kansas City Chiefs – Drue Tranquill, LB
After last year’s near miss of a season, the Chiefs have changed defensive scheme wholesale. Aside from the changes they’ve already made on the edge, the place this will be most felt is at the heart of the defense. Anthony Hitchens is a fine player but not an NFL standard coverage option. Reggie Ragland is not a starting-quality player and might be the worst coverage backer in the NFL.
Drue Tranquill is brilliant fun to watch and can play in all phases of the game. He would be an instant hit due to his energy, swagger and all-action style.
30. Green Bay Packers – Johnathan Abram, S
The Packers have been mocked lots of linebackers but that’s not really a priority with the way they use their personnel. More important is another option at safety who can fill in as a nickel LB. Kentrell Brice departed the team after being a disappointment and Josh Jones isn’t really very good. Abram is the biggest hitting safety in this class and the most physical. He’d get the chance to play in the box and blitz plenty under Mike Pettine.
31. Los Angeles Rams – Christian Miller, OLB
Wade Phillips is a bit of a wizard with developing edge players but even he couldn’t quite perform miracles last season. Aaron Donald had a season for the ages, but a team cannot consistently win through interior pressure without edge production. Miller is a project and needs coaching up but has the physical tools to get there.
32. New England Patriots – Taylor Rapp, S
Taylor Rapp was a brilliant college player who showed great versatility but has lost stock due to poor testing. He can play deep, he can hit like a missile and he can cover tight ends and backs. In New England, he would be the heir apparent to Patrick Chung under the guidance of Bill Belichick (who cares not one iota for a poor 40 time).