Will Cleveland take a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick or go a different direction?
It’s conference championship week in the NFL as we’ve gone from 32 teams with a shot at the Lombardi Trophy months ago to just four with only three more games left this season. While the Patriots, Eagles, Vikings and Jaguars are all still focused on Super Bowl LII, the rest of the league is firmly shifting gears into draft mode with the underclassmen declaration deadline over and the Senior Bowl rapidly approaching later this month.
Taking into account everything from team needs to potential free agent signings, here’s a look at how picks 1-32* could play out at AT&T Stadium this spring.
1. Cleveland Browns — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
It seems like the Browns will grab a quarterback either here or with the fourth pick, but something says they will opt to fill that position second if they just don’t fall head over heels with any of their options. That would put a number of different scenarios in play at the top of the draft but Barkley will be one of the highest graded players that could go early and would provide a dynamic offensive option for Hue Jackson to work with.
2. New York Giants — Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Darnold’s (above, right) turnovers will be a concern for some scouts but a deeper look will still reveal he’s one of the best prospects at the position. It doesn’t seem like Eli Manning is completely done in New York but he could be a great candidate to keep the seat warm while the USC product learns the playbook and takes over down the stretch in 2018.
3. Indianapolis Colts — Connor Williams, OL, Texas
Priority No. 1 for the new regime in Indy (with Josh McDaniels expected to be the head coach) is protecting quarterback Andrew Luck when he returns to the starting lineup. While a playmaker like Saquon Barkley could be an option if he’s on the board, Williams could solidify one of the tackle spots and bring a little mean streak when run blocking too.
4. Cleveland Browns (from Houston) — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
This may not be Rosen’s preferred destination, but he winds up going to Cleveland anyway. While his attitude may turn off a few franchises, he could embrace the challenge of leading the Browns out of the abyss and it goes without saying that he could be a Day 1 starter.
5. Denver Broncos — Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame
John Elway is going to take a long look at all the quarterbacks in this draft but might find free agency as a way to address things under center in Denver first. With that spot possibly taken care of before going to Dallas for the draft, the team instead nabs the highest-graded lineman available and forms a pretty athletic wall on the left side with 2017 first-round pick Garett Bolles at tackle.
6. New York Jets — Orlando Brown, OL, Oklahoma
Perhaps the team will offer a haul of picks to move up and draft a quarterback like Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen but either way, offensive line will be a big priority in 2018. Brown could be a starter early on with the mammoth Sooners star debuting on the right side before protecting the blind side.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Bradley Chubb, DL, NC State
Talk about luck as the Bucs see the highest-graded defensive player in the draft fall in their lap to fill a position of need. There will be quite a bit of turnover in the trenches for the team in the next few years and it might not be long before Chubb (right) takes over for Gerald McCoy as the leader of the D-line.
8. Chicago Bears — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
The Bears are clearly loading up to surround Mitchell Trubisky with some talent this offseason and the first order of business for new head coach Matt Nagy and company will be finding a No. 1 wide receiver. Don’t let the middling stats in college fool you, Ridley fits that bill perfectly and will quickly become a go-to for the Bears’ QB.
9. Oakland Raiders — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
Jon Gruden is going to gush about players left and right as he goes through the draft process but all you have to do is turn on tape of Smith’s last two games — on the big stage of the College Football Playoff — to see how good he is and just how good a fit he could be for the Raiders.
10. San Francisco — Josh Jackson, DB, Iowa
Just about any position could be targeting at this spot by the 49ers given how many needs they could address with all that cap room they have. Finding Jimmy Garoppolo some weapons will be big need but Jackson is a super talented corner who could play a huge role in shoring up the back end of the defense against the pass.
11. Miami Dolphins — Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Decisions await the Dolphins as to what they want to do at the quarterback position and the big-armed signal-caller has to be extremely intriguing as a long-term play for Adam Gase and company.
12. Cincinnati Bengals — Mike McGlinchey, OL, Notre Dame
The decline in offensive line play has mirrored the Bengals’ slide with their overall record so fixing things in the trenches will be a big talking point in the offseason. Marvin Lewis’ return muddles long-term planning so McGlinchey looks like a nice safe pick to start early on while also turning into a fixture at tackle for years to come.
13. Washington Redskins — Derwin James, DB, Florida State
Kirk Cousins’ situation will be the big topic for the franchise in the coming weeks but when you look at the draft down the road, somebody like James would be a huge boost to the Washington defense. He’d not only be a steal at this spot in the first round but he’d help the team in a division that has to face Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott four times a year.
14. Green Bay Packers — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
Ted Thompson may be occupying a different chair in Green Bay but new GM Brian Gutekunst will stick to the same old draft strategy by grabbing the best player available. That would be Fitzpatrick (right), who would form quite the tandem with fellow Alabama safey Ha Ha Clinton-Dix roaming the frozen tundra.
15. Arizona Cardinals — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
First order of business for the team’s new head coach will be sorting out the quarterback position in 2018 and beyond. While they could lure a free agent like Sam Bradford or this year’s darling in Case Keenum, selecting the Heisman Trophy winner to be the guy has plenty of upside for the team now and in the future. Mayfield teaming up with Larry Fitzgerald will be good for both on and off the field too.
16. Baltimore Ravens — Vita Vea, DL, Washington
Everybody will immediately think back to when the Ravens drafted Haloti Ngata nearly a decade ago with this pick and there are plenty of similarities between the two freakish defensive linemen. Vea is on a whole different level in terms of athleticism and seems tailored to making plays in the rough AFC North.
17. Los Angeles Chargers — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Philip Rivers won’t be around forever and future planning needs to take place for the Chargers as they hope to move into their new stadium with some momentum and a new face of the franchise. Allen isn’t ready to play right away but he has probably the biggest upside of any QB in the draft this year.
18. Seattle Seahawks — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
Pete Carroll is already re-tooling his staff and figures to do the same with the roster over the coming weeks and months. The team still hasn’t been able to find “that guy” at running back since Marshawn Lynch left and Guice (right) might just be the bell-cow back that the Seahawks need to take the pressure off Russell Wilson.
19. Dallas Cowboys — Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan
The Dallas defense got some solid production from Maliek Collins and David Irving last season but still need more impact players up front to anchor the middle.
20. Detroit Lions — Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, DL, Oklahoma
With Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia looking like the guy in Detroit, he will probably review the roster and prioritize finding an edge rusher or two in the draft. Okoronkwo fits the bill and he already has plenty of experience chasing down mobile quarterbacks after facing off against Baker Mayfield every day in practice.
21. Buffalo Bills — Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson’s final season on the 40 Acres was hampered by some injuries but the fast, athletic linebacker would instantly juice the Bills’ defense at a spot they need upgrades.
22. Buffalo Bills (from Kansas City) — Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Tyrod Taylor may not be back in Buffalo but an upgrade at the position in a similar mold could be in store with the pick of the Heisman winner. New OC Brian Daboll has experience from his year at Alabama in bringing young QBs along and fitting his system to them and could do the same with Jackson.
23. Los Angeles Rams — Denzel Ward, DB, Ohio State
Trumaine Johnson seems like he’ll be cashing a big check elsewhere in 2018 which means finding a replacement at corner will be a focus in the draft for a Rams team just a few plays away from mounting a legit Super Bowl run. Ward is a polished prospect and could slide in for Johnson not long after getting picked in the first round.
24. Carolina Panthers — Kolton Miller, OL, UCLA
Finding Cam Newton some new receiving targets can be accomplished in later rounds so the first-round pick appears ticketed to help protect the franchise’s star player. Miller has everything you look for in terms of measurables and athleticism in a tackle and could be a guy that is good value this late in the draft.
25. Tennessee Titans — Arden Key, Edge, LSU
Finding a new head coach is going to draw most of the attention of the front office but adding an edge rusher in the draft won’t be far behind. Key has all the talent to be a top-five pick but his slipping in the draft is Tennessee’s gain.
26. Atlanta Falcons — Da’Ron Payne, DL, Alabama
The Falcons are going to have to reload in the middle of Dan Quinn’s defense and who better to fill a spot than the athletic Payne, who was one of the best interior guys all season long in college football and is ready-made to have an impact from the start with this defense.
27. New Orleans Saints — Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
This could be a huge season of change in New Orleans and it’s possible the Saints could make a move to trade up and grab a quarterback if the dominoes fall the right way. Either way, finding a running mate for Michael Thomas on the other side is going to be an era the team could upgrade at and Sutton checks off a lot of boxes as one of the top wideouts available.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers — DeShon Elliott, DB, Texas
After having Blake Bortles inexplicably slice up the secondary in the playoffs, finding some help on the back end of the defense will be the big talk around the Steel City this offseason. Elliott was an interception machine this past season and should provide a ball-hawking boost to the Steelers.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars — James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
Marqise Lee will probably be enticed elsewhere after this wild playoff run for the Jags but the team could actually upgrade the position by slotting home-run threat Washington into his spot on the two-deep with this pick.
30. Philadelphia Eagles — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
Edmunds (right) is going to be a hotly discussed prospect during the draft and might not even be around for the Eagles to grab if he shows out at the Scouting Combine. He’s a perfect fit for the Eagles’ defense and should play plenty for a team that is already stacked on that side of the ball.
31. Minnesota Vikings — Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia
The Vikings could be a prime candidate to trade back with a team that doesn’t have a first-round pick at this spot but if they stay put they could boost the interior offensive line by grabbing Wynn. He played tackle with the Bulldogs and handled a number of top-notch pass rushers this past year but figures to slide inside to be a starter at guard right away.
32. New England Patriots — Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State
While there might be internal strife and plenty of folks wondering how long the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady combo will continue to win big in New England, the fact is the window for the franchise remains open for the next few years to add even more Lombardi Trophies. Adding pieces to the defense will come later in the draft after the team finds a big, physical wideout on the outside to complement all the other weapons Brady has at his disposal for the most dangerous offense in the league.
*Picks 1-28 are set with the exception of Nos. 9 and 10. Oakland and San Francisco will flip a coin to break the tie. Picks 29-32 will be determined by the outcome of the conference championship games and Super Bowl LII.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.