As the NFL Draft approaches on April 23-24, here is the latest update on how I see the first round playing out. The mock draft is based on independent research into team needs, as well as updated information on individual players that teams are interested in. This mock draft does not take potential trades into account. The draft order will not be altered unless a trade is made official. Players marked with an asterisk (*) are underclassmen.
1. San Francisco – Aaron Rodgers, QB, California*. The 49ers like both Rodgers and Smith. Perhaps something, like the beginning of contract negotiations, will allow us to more confidently separate the two before the draft. Rodgers has the stronger arm, though he needs more work in reading coverage. He’s a good fit for a franchise looking to rebuild around a young quarterback, and his arm might be a better fit for the West Coast offense. Because of the miserable situation San Francisco is in, a trade-down for extra picks can’t be ruled out.
2. Miami – Ronnie Brown, RB, Auburn. The Dolphins, under new coach Nick Saban, know that they have to upgrade at running back, especially if they’re still serious about employing A.J. Feeley at quarterback. Brown vaulted himself to the top of this top-heavy running back class with his performance at the scouting combine. His size and speed are outstanding, and he’ll be the workhorse back the Dolphins lacked last year after Ricky Williams left abruptly before training camp.
3. Cleveland – Alex Smith, QB, Utah*. The Browns will try to shed years of bad drafts with this pick. New GM Phil Savage understands the importance of getting a franchise quarterback, especially after the Jeff Garcia experiment failed. No one on the Browns’ roster is ready to be an NFL starter, but Smith is. He doesn’t have Rodgers’ arm, but he makes up for it with uncanny field vision and great instincts. He has the toughness and leadership to make it at the next level.
4. Chicago – Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan. Even with Muhsin Muhammad in the fold, the Bears still could use help at wide receiver. They traded Marty Booker during training camp last year, and no one on the roster made up for his absence. Edwards is the top player on many boards, and would be a great bargain at number four overall, especially with Muhammad’s inconsistent and sometimes injury-prone past. While running back is also a need, the Bears are more stable at that position and can address it later.
5. Tampa Bay – Carnell Williams, RB, Auburn. Jon Gruden has been eyeing Williams since he coached the kid in the Senior Bowl. Either Gruden is playing everyone for a fool, or he needs someone to teach him the concept of a poker face. Williams’ speed, elusiveness, and receiving skills make him a very good fit for Gruden’s offense. Michael Pittman and Charlie Garner have both failed to prove themselves as reliable starting backs, so the Buccaneers will probably go in this direction with their first pick.
6. Tennessee – Adam Jones, CB, West Virginia*. Like the quarterbacks at the top of the board, not much separates the top two cornerbacks. Both Jones and Miami’s Antrel Rolle have good speed, cover skills, and both can help immediately as dynamic return men. I’ll put Jones a bit higher because he’s less physical in coverage but still more than willing to help out against the run. Tennessee lost both starting corners in free agency, so Jones will start immediately for the Titans opposite Andre Woolfolk.
7. Minnesota – Mike Williams, WR, Southern California*. After trading Randy Moss to Oakland and acquiring this pick, speculation began to run rampant about the Vikings drafting Williams. Unless the Vikings have an inflated view of Travis Taylor, they haven’t acquired a number one receiver to replace Moss. Williams is the closest thing to that left on the board. His size (6’5”) and hands make him an attractive option for a team that just spent seven years throwing to the 6’4” Moss.
8. Arizona – Cedric Benson, RB, Texas. This pick will change if the Cardinals are able to acquire Travis Henry from Buffalo. For now, though, they need a running back. Benson is the most powerful back in this class. He’s not as accomplished a receiver as the other two backs, but he’s more than adequate in that area. He’s a tough runner, but he was very durable in college, and he carried the ball a ton. If the Cardinals acquire Henry before the draft, look for them to pick up Antrel Rolle with this pick.
9. Washington – Antrel Rolle, CB, Miami-FL. The Redskins will take either of the top two corners on the board. After losing Fred Smoot in free agency, the team knows they have to upgrade at that position. They need a guy who can excel in man coverage as well as run support, something that isn’t a strength for returning starter Shawn Springs. Rolle would start opposite Springs, and he will give the team a physical presence on the outside while also providing a dynamic kick-return threat.
10. Detroit – Alex Barron, OT, Florida State. The Lions need a new starting right tackle, as Stockar McDougle left for Miami in free agency. While the defense also has holes, the Lions need to shore up this position, and they haven’t gotten it done in free agency. Barron is the best lineman in this draft. At 6’7”, 320 pounds, he’s a strong blocker with room to improve his bulk. He needs to be more physical and more consistent, but he has the potential to become a Pro Bowl player.
11. Dallas – Shawne Merriman, DE/OLB, Maryland*. The Cowboys crave a player who can get to the quarterback from the edge. While Merriman only started in college for one year, he has great pass-rush ability and is very strong for his size (250 pounds). He’s a reliable player, and he has a reputation as a guy that plays through pain. He can play standing up as a linebacker or as a down lineman, though he may project as a more effective linebacker at the next level, but will have to improve in coverage to make it as an every-down linebacker.
12. San Diego – Marcus Spears, DE, Louisiana State. Spears is a 300-pounder who has pass-rush skills, as well as the bulk to hold up against the run. The Chargers, who play a 3-4 look, need to upgrade at defensive end. They already have a stud defensive tackle in Jamal Williams, but he can’t do everything on the line by himself. Spears will compete for starting time opposite Igor Olshansky, a 2004 second-rounder who made significant progress in his rookie season.
13. Houston – Derrick Johnson, OLB, Texas. The Texans view outside linebacker as a pressing need, as they would like to move Kailee Wong inside after cutting Jamie Sharper. To do that, they have to upgrade on the outside, and Johnson is a perfect fit. He has the ability to get to the quarterback from the edge, and he can also drop back into coverage without looking lost. Johnson needs to improve as a tackler, and he sometimes has trouble when teams run right at him, but the Texans would love to add his speed and instincts to their defense.
14. Carolina – Troy Williamson, WR, South Carolina*. The Panthers lost Steve Smith in the season opener in 2004, and it showed. Now, they get Smith back, but they have lost Muhsin Muhammad in free agency. Keary Colbert isn’t ready to step in as the second receiver, and he may never be, so the Panthers need to find a prospect to fill that hole. Williamson has run 4.3s in his workouts, and he has excellent hands. He is a bit raw, but teams love his athleticism. He’s also a good blocker, having played for a program that primarily ran the ball.
15. Kansas City – David Pollack, DE, Georgia. The Chiefs shouldn’t even be allowed to draft offensive players. They have too many needs on defense. One of those needs is an every-down defensive end. They traded for former Tennessee Titan Carlos Hall, but still need to get better. Pollack doesn’t have the height or speed of the “elite” prospects, but he has a non-stop motor and knows how to play the game. He’ll fit in well to just about any defensive scheme, and he’ll push for playing time in Kansas City right away.
16. New Orleans – Thomas Davis, S, Georgia*. Even with the signing of Dwight Smith and the presence of veteran Jay Bellamy, the Saints know they could use a younger, faster player in center field. Davis projects as an “in the box” safety or outside linebacker to many, but he still has good coverage skills. Wherever he plays, he can help the Saints, who have holes at safety and outside linebacker. They would be foolish to pass on an athlete of Davis’ caliber at this point in the first round.
17. Cincinnati – Travis Johnson, DT, Florida State. As the Bengals look up at Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North, they probably notice one huge discrepancy between the three teams. The Steelers and Ravens have top-notch run defenses, while the Bengals were 26th last year against the run. Johnson isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he grades out highly in run defense. He’s very disruptive against the run, and he has the athletic ability to potentially improve as a pass rusher.
18. Minnesota – Dan Cody, DE, Oklahoma. The Vikings have done a great job in free agency, signing Fred Smoot and Darren Sharper to help in the secondary, Pat Williams at defensive tackle, and acquiring Napoleon Harris and Sam Cowart at linebacker. Kenechi Udeze was a bit of a disappointment last year as a pass-rusher, and Lance Johnstone isn’t durable enough to be counted on, so the Vikings still need a defensive end that can pressure from the outside. Cody is a good fit because he has the pass-rush skills to dominate in the NFL.
19. St. Louis – Jamaal Brown, OT, Oklahoma. Even if Kyle Turley (back problems) is healthy, it’s hard to imagine he’ll return to play for a coach that he allegedly threatened to kill. With that in mind, the Rams need to find a new starting right tackle. Brown is raw and there are questions about how quickly he will pick up the techniques he needs to learn. But he’s experienced as a right tackle, and he has excellent footwork in pass blocking. There is risk here, but Brown is the best prospect at a position of need for the Rams.
20. Dallas – Carlos Rogers, CB, Auburn. The Cowboys like Terence Newman at left corner, but they have had trouble finding an adequate starter on the other side of the field. They signed Anthony Henry as a free agent, but he’s not likely the answer. Rogers is an underrated prospect who has good size and strength and has gained a lot of confidence in the past year. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he makes up for it with very good man-to-man skills and the ability to find the football in the air.
21. Jacksonville – Khalif Barnes, OT, Washington. The Jaguars have Mike Pearson, but his availability for 2005 is up in the air after he suffered a serious knee injury last season. Without him, the Jaguars’ lack of depth is exposed. Barnes has been rising on some draft boards despite some concerns over his durability and work ethic. He had a broken wrist in 2004, but was having a strong season until the injury. He has good fundamentals and is very light on his feet.
22. Baltimore – Roddy White, WR, Alabama-Birmingham. White has been a quick riser as of late, thanks to a strong Senior Bowl and an even stronger combine performance. White has been running in the 4.4s, which combines with his good size (6’1”, 207) to make him a dangerous vertical receiver. Even as a rookie, White could serve as the perfect compliment to new Ravens wideout Derrick Mason, who was signed as a free agent. White has to learn how to beat press coverage, something he should excel at with his size.
23. Seattle – Erasmus James, DE, Wisconsin. Chike Okeafor signed with Arizona as a free agent, and Grant Wistrom is coming off a season where he missed seven games due to injury, so the Seahawks would be smart to upgrade their personnel at defensive end. James might have the best pure pass-rushing skills of any every-down defensive end in this class. He could end up being a major steal with the 23rd pick, as concerns over his durability have knocked his stock down a peg or two.
24. Green Bay – Matt Roth, DE, Iowa. The Packers are looking for another defensive end who can get upfield. Aaron Kampman is adequate against the run, but doesn’t give the Packers much of a pass-rush threat. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates wants athletic ends who can get to the quarterback. Roth is a good pass-rusher who has better overall skills than most people think, and he plays with a mean streak. His attitude would be a great fit on a Packers defensive line that played way too soft at times last year.
25. Denver – Shaun Cody, DE/DT, Southern California. Despite adding four new defensive linemen, the Broncos still need to upgrade their outside pass rush. Cody is a tweener who can rush the passer from either the outside or the inside. He’s a good fit on this defensive line, considering the Broncos had a similar player for a few years in Trevor Pryce, who they are trying to trade. Mike Shanahan may look at the players he’s added and decide to fill another need here, but there isn’t a lot of value available at positions the Broncos have needs at.
26. N.Y. Jets – Fabian Washington, CB, Nebraska*. Starting corners Donnie Abraham and David Barrett don't make many mistakes, but they don't make many big plays either and are vulnerable to getting beat deep. Washington helped his stock by running a 4.29 40-yard dash, and his explosive speed adds a new dimension to the Jets’ secondary. He isn’t very physical in coverage or run support, and he may struggle early in his career against bigger receivers, but his speed and coverage skills have vaulted him into first-round consideration.
27. Atlanta – Mark Clayton, WR, Oklahoma. Michael Vick needs some help from people not named Alge Crumpler for this offense to continue to progress. The Falcons drafted Michael Jenkins in the first round last year, but he’s been a bit of a disappointment. Dez White wasn’t good last year, and Peerless Price has been a bust. Clayton is a much safer choice than Jenkins was last year, because of his ability to beat defenders both in man and zone coverage, combined with his above-average hands.
28. San Diego – Brodney Pool, S, Oklahoma*. If the Chargers expect free-agent Bhawoh Jue to start and play effectively at free safety, they’re sorely mistaken. That position still needs an upgrade despite Jue’s signing, and Pool is a good fit. He has excellent ball skills and is solid in zone coverage. Pool is a smart player who can contribute immediately as a “center fielder” type of safety. He has underrated ability in run support, but isn’t overly physical or intimidating.
29. Indianapolis – Heath Miller, TE, Virginia*. The Colts lost Marcus Pollard in free agency, putting the pressure on Dallas Clark to produce as the team’s top tight end. At this point, Clark is the only tight end on the roster with any significant experience. Miller is a player rated much higher on many draft boards, and the Colts won’t be able to pass him up here, despite their plethora of defensive needs. Miller has great hands and would be a perfect fit in the Colts’ wide-open offense.
30. Pittsburgh – Channing Crowder, ILB, Florida*. Kendrell Bell’s departure as a free agent (Kansas City) leaves a rather large hole in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense. Crowder doesn’t have Bell’s pass-rush skills, but he’s very good against the run, and he should do a better job of getting to the quarterback with some coaching. Crowder’s character is an issue, as is durability, but his overall skill set should get him drafted late in the first round. He’s a good fit in Pittsburgh, where he can play in a very linebacker-friendly defensive system.
31. Philadelphia – DeMarcus Ware, DE/OLB, Troy. While he is a bit on the small side at 251 pounds, Ware is a dynamic pass-rusher who can play either as an end or a rush linebacker. He has the frame to get bigger, which he may have to do to play end in the NFL. Ware is the situational pass-rush threat the Eagles need opposite Jevon Kearse, and he could work himself into the starting lineup if he gets bigger and does a better job diagnosing the run. He also needs to be a more consistent tackler.
32. New England – Marlin Jackson, CB, Michigan. Duane Starks, 31, and Tyrone Poole, 32, are the Patriots’ starting corners. Both have had issues staying healthy, and both are undersized. Jackson is big and strong, and is a much more physical player than either Starks or Poole. Jackson won’t get lost in coverage, and he’s very good in run support. He has the versatility to play safety if necessary, though he’s better off at cornerback. He’ll have to adjust to the NFL’s strict crackdown on illegal contact, but he projects as a very good pro cornerback.