In spite of rumors, Burrow likely No. 1

By Bruce Marshall  () 

We have come to value the upcoming NFL draft more than ever. It remains the highlight of offseason business in pro football, which has been about the only sporting enterprise largely unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s hope our annual draft preview begins coverage of a season that can resume normally by this summer.
        Following are updates for teams in the top half of the draft, revolving around offseason developments and first-round projections, plus our predicted selections. Trades can alter draft order, but for the moment this is how we believe things might proceed. The draft will be April 23-25. 
1. CINCINNATI BENGALS: Cincinnati was a bit more active than usual in the offseason. Among free-agent additions are ex-Vikings CB Trae Waynes and ex-Texans DT D.J. Reader. Owner Mike Brown must have winced as he opened his wallet for a big-bucks re-sign of WR A.J. Green, an acknowledged home run threat whose durability is in question. The Bengals were not about to sit on their hands as usual after recording the franchise’s worst record at 2-14 and with a roster full of holes. Still on the books as of early April was veteran QB Andy Dalton, yet to be traded but unlikely to be on the roster by summer. The obvious selection at the top of the draft is Heisman-winning LSU QB Joe Burrow. The pick might not be hermetically sealed, however, as there were whispers that Burrow might not be particularly excited about enlisting at Paul Brown Stadium and that the Bengals were at least listening to trade offers. Expect the defensive front, especially on the edge, to generate some attention shortly after settling the QB situation. We highly doubt Cincinnati will move off the top spot or from Burrow, but the speculation adds a bit of mystery in the run-up to April 23. Projected pick: Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
2. WASHINGTON REDSKINS: The Skins moved quickly in their latest reboot, signing ex-Panthers coach Ron Rivera to pick up the pieces from the derailed Jay Gruden era. Owner Dan Snyder finally hit the eject button on long-serving team President Bruce Allen as well. For a time it looked as if a reunion between Rivera and his old Carolina QB, Cam Newton, was in the cards. Rivera tapped the Panthers, all right, but instead landed Kyle Allen, who flourished for a while last season after Newton went down. Allen also reunites with Carolina offensive coordinator Scott Turner, though for now it seems Rivera is comfortable with second-year ex-Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins, who performed with occasional flair down the stretch. The secondary got a new look in free agency, especially on the corners, where ex-Chief Kendall Fuller and ex-Eagle Ronald Darby were added. But the offense has gotten few upgrades and is likely to be addressed in the draft. The chance to pluck an impact edge rusher like Ohio State’s Chase Young at No. 2 might be too tempting to bypass. But expect the Skins, who might covet extra picks, to receive plenty of inquiries about their first-round slot. Projected pick: Chase Young, DE, Ohio State
3. DETROIT LIONS: Matthew Stafford’s injury last fall provided coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn a convenient mulligan, but another playoff miss is unlikely to be tolerated, especially after Patricia threw several assistants under the bus.  Getting Stafford healthy will obviously be key, but Quinn has spent much of the offseason trying to bolster a defense that has been woefully short of playmakers.   Even after adding potential starters at every level of the platoon — Danny Shelton and Nick Williams at DT, Jamie Collins at LB and CB Desmond Trufant and S Duran Harmon in the secondary — playmakers are still needed badly. And after disgruntled CB Darius Slay was offloaded to the Eagles, Quinn would be awfully tempted to take the acknowledged top corner on the board, Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah. Quinn is also likely to receive plenty of calls about the third pick if rumors of interest in former Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, who has apparently gotten an all-clear from Nick Saban after a severe hip injury last fall, prove true.  Projected pick: Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State
4. NEW YORK GIANTS: Bob Tisch and John Mara decided to give GM Dave Gettleman one more chance to get the Giants back on course while forcing coach Pat Shurmur to walk the plank after two disappointing seasons. More pressure, then, on Gettleman for an overdue course correction than on new coach Joe Judge, the latest Bill Belichick disciple to get a head coaching shot. Gettleman mostly went after defense in free agency, signing ex-Panthers CB James Bradberry and ex-Packers ILB Blake Martinez to pricey deals. He also enlisted another former Packer, OLB Kyler Fackrell, and slapped the franchise tag on DE Leonard Williams. More playmakers are still needed, however, so continuing the focus on the stop unit in the draft would be no surprise.  Meanwhile, the keys to the offense have been given to second-year QB Daniel Jones, who flashed plenty of upside after moving out Eli Manning last fall, while RB Saquon Barkley appears poised for a bust-out campaign in his third year.  Gettleman will also likely be tempted by several trade offers from QB-hungry teams desperate for a chance to nab Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert.  Projected pick: Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
5. MIAMI DOLPHINS: With a treasure trove of 14 draft picks, including three first-rounders, the Dolphins are for once in an enviable position. Miami is obviously looking for a long-term answer at QB, and speculation is rife that GM Chris Grier might not want to risk waiting until the fifth spot and risk losing out on Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or, maybe, Oregon’s Justin Herbert. So moving up would surprise no one. Grier has already been busy in the offseason, using bountiful cap room to bolster the defense. He has added ex-Cowboys CB Byron Jones, the highest-priced free agent so far, ex-Patriots LB Kyle Van Noy and ex-Bills DE Shaq Lawson, plus more help in the trenches with ex-Redskins G Ereck Flowers. Grier was also in the market for a RB and reportedly made a run at the Rams’ Todd Gurley before adding Jordan Howard from the Eagles. Grier is not likely done wheeling and dealing. Real optimism surrounds the Dolphins for the first time in a few years after the late-season rally for first-year coach Brian Flores. Projected pick: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
6. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: The Philip Rivers era ended for the Bolts when their long-serving quarterback walked to the Colts in free agency. But after Rivers threw 20 interceptions last season, we’re not sure how much he will be missed.  For the moment, word is that the Chargers are content to let holdover Tyrod Taylor act as a bridge to a high-profile rookie QB. But rumors continue to circulate that the Bolts could opt for Cam Newton as a short-term fix while a rookie (Oregon’s Justin Herbert?) watches and learns for a year or two. After all, the Chargers were decimated by injuries last year and believe they could quickly recover to playoff contention as they move into new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood minus much of a local fan base. That could present some optics even more embarrassing for the league than the last three years at the temporary MLS venue in Carson, which was constantly overrun by visiting fans. The Bolts made some serious moves in free agency, luring CB Chris Harris from AFC West rival Denver and adding a possible anchor on the OL in ex-Packers G Bryan Bulaga while making sure to keep TE Hunter Henry. All of this suggests the Chargers aren’t looking at 2020 as a rebuilding year. At the top of the draft, however, it’s finally time to identify the long-term successor to Rivers. Projected pick: Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
7. CAROLINA PANTHERS: It’s a different look for the Panthers after cleaning house for anxious new owner David Tepper. New faces include a college feel on the sideline with coach Matt Rhule and defense coordinator Phil Snow lured from Baylor and offensive coordinator Joe Brady fresh from designing the LSU offense that took college football by storm last fall. That preceded an effective roster clear-out that dumped a lot of high-priced vets, including QB Cam Newton, and added some up-and-comers to short, lower-priced deals. The highest profile of those was enticing QB Teddy Bridgewater from the Saints on a three-year deal worth $63 million, a fair price if Bridgewater delivers as he did when filling in for Drew Brees last year. Meanwhile, WR Robby Anderson could prove a useful addition from the Jets. A contract situation to watch will involve RB Christian McCaffrey, nearing the end of his rookie deal and looking for a big-bucks extension from GM Marty Hurney, who must figure that eventual price tag into the rebuild. For the moment, however, expect Hurney to pay extra attention to a suspect defense, especially along the line, in the draft. Projected pick: Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
8. ARIZONA CARDINALS: After clearing a relatively low bar in his maiden NFL voyage a year ago, coach Kliff Kingsbury will be expected to do a bit more this fall. Especially after some shrewd offseason maneuvering by GM Steve Keim, who heisted All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins from Houston to give second-year QB Kyler Murray a top-end target in the pro version of Kingsbury’s Texas Tech spread. Keim also filled some pressing defensive needs in free agency by signing ex-Bills DT Jordan Phillips, ex-Lions OLB Devon Kennard and ex-Falcons OLB De’Vondre Campbell. Having already addressed key needs, the Cards can pick and choose in the draft and could be tempted to trade down. But after focusing on defense in free agency, Keim will likely want to help Kingsbury and Murray by fortifying the offensive front. Projected pick: Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
9. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Perhaps speaking to his polarizing presence, team President Tom Coughlin was dismissed in December after reports of numerous grievances leveled against the team by the NFLPA made keeping him untenable. Surprisingly, that appeared to spare coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell, but owner Shahid Khan will be in no mood to grant another reprieve if they can’t get back to the playoffs after bad misses the last two years. Hard against the cap, Caldwell was unable to spend big in free agency, though he shed enough salary, including QB Nick Foles, to create space to sign  ex-Bengals TE Tyler Eifert and ex-Browns LB Joe Schobert on modest deals. Apparently, Marrone is going to hand over the offense to second-year QB Gardner Minshew, who briefly became a cult hero last fall before his performance leveled. But rumors persist that Cam Newton could be on the Jags’ radar. In the meantime, a once-robust defense has been depleted by recently offloading disgruntled stars such as Jalen Ramsey and Dante Fowler and will likely target a Ramsey replacement at corner in the early portion of the draft. Projected pick: C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida
10. CLEVELAND BROWNS: The merry-go-round continues to spin in Cleveland after last year’s Browns became one of the biggest false alarms since the Comet Kohoutek. After the ill-advised decision to hire Freddie Kitchens as coach a year ago, ex-Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski becomes the fourth head coach since the 2018 season. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Andrew Berry has become the youngest GM in NFL history for beleaguered owner Jimmy Haslam.  Stefanski’s first challenge will be to instill discipline on a squad that had far too little of it a year ago and still might have too many big personalities in the clubhouse. It’s an important season for third-year QB Baker Mayfield, who didn’t progress as hoped a year ago. Perhaps having newly signed vet Case Keenum in a backup role can provide guidance. Berry provided some help for Mayfield by landing ex-Titans OT Jack Conklin and ex-Falcons TE Austin Hooper in a pair of high-priced free-agent deals. With the status of suspended Myles Garrett still unclear, expect Berry to address DE in the draft. But after adding a new right tackle in Conklin, a bountiful collection of available left tackles provides a chance to give Mayfield a new pair of quality bookends up front. Projected pick: Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
11. NEW YORK JETS: If coach Adam Gase is going to survive into a third season in 2021, he needs to provide more help for QB Sam Darnold, who cannot flourish if under siege as he was a year ago. To that end, GM Joe Douglas did his best to upgrade the OL in free agency, with versatile ex-Bronco Connor McGovern an upgrade at center (his likely spot) or guard. Ex-Seahawks T George Fant and ex-Panthers G Greg Van Roten were also enlisted, but expect the OL revamp to continue in the draft. Adding WR Breshad Perriman from the Bucs somewhat offsets Robby Anderson’s departure, but expect another target or two for Darnold to be identified in the draft, and upgrades on the corner are also likely. But if the OL restructure isn’t yet complete, Douglas picked the right draft to stock up on a quality collection of incoming tackles. Projected pick: Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Alabama
12. LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: As the Silver and Black ready for their debut at new Allegiant Stadium, it’s also looking like a crossroads year for QB Derek Carr, who hasn’t been the same since his leg injury in late 2016 and has reportedly used up most of Jon Gruden’s patience. In case Carr flounders, Marcus Mariota has been signed from the Titans, which has a ring similar to the role Ryan Tannehill played last year in Nashville when supplanting Mariota before midseason. Stay tuned.  For the most part, Gruden and GM Mike Mayock addressed defense in free agency, with ex-Rams LB Cory Littleton the featured addition. But with Eli Apple’s deal having recently fallen though, the Raiders might still be in the market for a cornerback. Finding upgraded receiving targets for Carr (or Mariota) also appears high on the shopping list in Vegas. Projected pick: CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma
13. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (from Indianapolis): For the most part, the 49ers have tried to keep the band together for another run at the ring after their bitter fourth quarter vs. the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. GM John Lynch couldn’t keep everybody on the payroll but was able to flip DT DeForest Buckner to the Colts for an extra choice in the top half of the first round. Lynch was able to hold on to DE Arik Armstead, S Jimmie Ward, DE Ronald Blair III and G Ben Garland, though the departures of Buckner and WR Emmanuel Sanders to the Saints create a couple of gaping holes that Lynch probably will want to address in the early rounds of the draft. Projected pick: Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina
14. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: The Bucs have already authored the storyline of the offseason by stealing Tom Brady from the Patriots. Suddenly there is a buzz at Raymond James Stadium for the first time in more than a decade as the thought of Brady passing to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans in a Bruce Arians-designed offense has fans salivating. Flying a bit under the radar in these circumstances was retaining DT Ndamukong Suh, which had extra importance with the Bucs losing some front-seven depth in free agency. But the departure of RT Demar Dotson could prompt the Bucs to look for an immediate replacement early in the draft. Projected pick: Mekhi Becton, OT, Louisville
15. DENVER BRONCOS: John Elway has been active in the offseason, but it remains to be seen if the Broncos have just been shuffling players or if they have made some real upgrades for second-year coach Vic Fangio. On the surface, acquiring DT Jurell Casey from the Titans might be only a wash with Derek Wolfe leaving for the Ravens, while adding CB A.J. Bouye from the Jaguars merely fills the hole created by the move of Chris Harris to the Chargers. Ditto signing G Graham Glasgow from the Lions just as Connor McGovern was going out the door to the Jets. Meanwhile, spending $10 million this season on ex-Chargers RB Melvin Gordon, whose holdout last fall did not pay off, looks a bit unnecessary as a platoon mate for Philip Lindsay, who has gained better than 1,000 yards rushing each of his first two years. We suspect Elway’s best move might have been enlisting well-traveled Pat Shurmur as offensive coordinator in place of the overmatched Rich Scangarello, which could accelerate second-year QB Drew Lock’s progress. One area the Broncos didn’t address in free agency was WR, where a viable complement to Courtland Sutton could likely be identified within a deep class of incoming wideouts. Projected pick: Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
16. ATLANTA FALCONS: After closing with a rush last season, the Falcons loom as intriguing NFC dark horses. That’s especially true after GM Tom Dimitroff, on the hot seat along with coach Dan Quinn, pulled off a couple of slick deals in the offseason. He addressed the need for an edge rusher by signing Dante Fowler from the Rams while also tapping L.A. for RB Todd Gurley, who has been mysterious the last couple of years but still tantalizes in an offense that retains Pro Bowl quality in QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones. Meanwhile, trading with the Ravens for TE Hayden Hurst somewhat cushions the blow of Austin Hooper leaving for Cleveland. Even with the addition of Fowler, Dimitroff is probably not done retooling his defense, which has been badly deficient in pressuring opposing QBs the last couple of years. Projected pick: K’Lavon Chaisson, LB, LSU
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