There’s a popular myth that circulates through the sports universe, and it’s called the “NFL offseason.”
Tuesday dawned a few days of clear of the annual scouting combine and more than a week shy of the league’s new year and free agency.
And yet …
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers agreed to the richest deal in NFL history – at least according to reports he hasn’t verified – Russell Wilson was in the process of getting traded from the Seahawks to the Broncos, franchise tags were flying, pending free agents like Chargers WR Mike Williams and Titans OLB Harold Landry signed enriching extensions and likely future first-ballot Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner was getting his walking papers in Seattle.
A day later, former Eagles and Colts QB Carson Wentz was on his way to becoming Commander Carson in Washington.
NFL WINNERS, LOSERS:Franchise QBs (Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson), franchise tags make news
Tuesday’s avalanche of news all came down just hours after our initial post-combine mock draft dropped. And, despite our best efforts to update it, the mock was rendered obsolete by early afternoon. So let’s try this again – it’s not like there’s an offseason to take a breather or anything:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – DE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan: The Jags might have quietly altered the top of this draft after opting to franchise tag LT Cam Robinson for the second straight year. While it would make plenty of sense to move Robinson to the right side – or keep him as a placeholder for another year and draft the next blind side sentinel for QB Trevor Lawrence – it’s pretty unusual to pay right tackles or Band-Aids $16.7 million. Yet why wouldn’t you create a fallback plan that better enables you to tab Hutchinson, who’s widely considered as the top prospect available this spring? Engaging off the field, relentless between the lines and highly productive, the Heisman Trophy finalist set a Wolverines record with 14 sacks in 2021. The 6-7, 260-pounder would form quite the QB-hunting tandem opposite Jacksonville’s Josh Allen.
2. New York Jets [PROJECTED TRADE with Detroit Lions] – OT Ikem ‘Ickey’ Ekwonu, North Carolina State: The Jets currently own the fourth and 10th choices of Round 1, but in this projection, they’ll to swap them for this spot while adding Detroit’s 34th overall selection. If Hutchinson were available, the Lions doubtless stick and pick the local Michigan star. But if he’s not, this might be a golden opportunity for Detroit to consider this kind of maneuver given the Lions are set with a pair of outstanding young offensive tackles in Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell. The Jets, who already own two early picks in Round 2, do not appear blessed with a similarly talented blocker to protect second-year QB Zach Wilson given the way former first-rounder Mekhi Becton’s career seems to be coming off the rails – and the 6-7, 363-pounder might fit better on the right side, assuming he can stay healthy. Enter Ekwonu, who’s a mauler with sweet feet on the blind side – the 6-4, 310-pounder ran a sub-5-second 40-yard dash at the combine – and has more than enough upside to reach his All-Pro potential in the NFL. And why not draft a kid who was a star on stage as a kid and give him the chance to be … “Broadway Ickey?”
3. Houston Texans – OT Evan Neal, Alabama: It would be perfectly sensible for GM Nick Caserio to deal this pick. He could also consider trading incumbent LT Laremy Tunsil in a bid for draft capital that’s badly needed to reconstruct this roster. But if the Texans stay put – regardless of Tunsil’s status – Neal would make a lot of sense, given he can play either tackle spot or guard and could serve as a nice cornerstone of a team in dire need of a new foundation. Unlike Ekwonu, Neal (6-8, 337 pounds) didn’t work out in Indianapolis, but he could solidify himself as the top tackle prospect with a strong showing at the Crimson Tide’s pro day later this month.
4. Lions [PROJECTED TRADE with Jets] – S Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame: The Ford family has an Expedition-sized hole on the back line that isn’t going to improve with starting FS Tracy Walker headed for free agency. Hamilton can more than remedy that. A Kam Chancellor-sized specimen – Hamilton is 6-4 and 220 pounds with sub-4.6 speed – he can shore up deficiencies at the second and/or third levels. Hamilton can provide coverage, a box presence, blitzing ability and an intimidation factor for a unit that needs more pop behind its front. Coach Dan Campbell will obviously appreciate the copious kneecaps left in Hamilton’s wake.
5. New York Giants – DE Travon Walker, Georgia: A scheme-diverse, explosive (4.51 40 time and 35½-inch vertical leap … wow), 6-5, 272-pounder, Walker can pretty much do it all – from applying pressure to shutting down run lanes, to dropping into coverage. He only had 9½ sacks in three seasons with the Dawgs, so the lack of production is slightly puzzling even when viewed in the context of Georgia’s depth and fact Walker often lined up inside. But the ability is there – and so, too, might be increased opportunities by teaming him with former Georgia teammate Azeez Ojulari and interior disruptor Leonard Williams, a trio that could give Big Blue the makings of a scary pass rush for years to come.
6. Carolina Panthers – OT Charles Cross, Mississippi State: This may be one of the draft’s early wild-card spots given GM Scott Fitterer doesn’t have another pick in the first three rounds – barring a trade of RB Christian McCaffrey, of course – yet could also be tempted by a quarterback prospect given Carolina doesn’t appear to have a long-term solution under center. The board may also fall in a way that Fitterer could easily move back just a few spots to get a guy he likes while still replenishing his draft ammo. All of that notwithstanding, this team desperately needs a left tackle to protect whoever is throwing the ball, and Cross – he did a ton of pass blocking for the Bulldogs – could be the best candidate here.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers [PROJECTED TRADE with Giants] – QB Malik Willis, Liberty: Follow along – this pick originally belonged to the Chicago Bears but went to the Giants last year in the draft night maneuver for QB Justin Fields. In this scenario, it changes hands again as two of the NFL’s blueblood franchises strike a deal, outgoing Steelers GM Kevin Colbert ensuring he leaves behind a potential franchise quarterback in the wake of Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement. Willis, who has an eye-popping arm, is the type of dual-threat passer coach Mike Tomlin has signaled a desire for and provided ample evidence – including the viral video where he helped a pregnant woman on the streets in Indianapolis – that he’s the kind of player you want as the face of a franchise. And with Mason Rudolph available as a bridge quarterback if Willis needs extra seasoning, this move could make all types of sense – especially since he seems unlikely to be available if Colbert holds at No. 20.
8. Atlanta Falcons – WR Garrett Wilson, Ohio State: A team with this many holes has several options to weigh, including a trade, given GM Terry Fontenot doesn’t have much cap space to patch his problems. However the 2022 suspension of Calvin Ridley and pending departure of Russell Gage may move wideout right to the top of Fontenot’s wish list. After laying down a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine, the 6-foot, 183-pound Wilson bolstered the argument he might be the top pass-catching prospect in a very deep class of them. He’s effective both outside and from the slot and is especially dangerous after the catch, scoring 13 TDs last season (one as a rusher). He would pair very nicely in the pass game with last year’s first-rounder, TE Kyle Pitts.
9. Seattle Seahawks (from Denver Broncos) – DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon: Seattle is back in Round 1 after acquiring Denver’s pick in the Wilson deal. So now what? The reflexive consideration is quarterback for a club currently mulling Drew Lock and Jacob Eason as its starting options. But it sure seems like coach Pete Carroll wants to get back to running the ball and playing suffocating defense, things the Seahawks often struggled to do in the latter part of Wilson’s reign. Thibodeaux arguably has a higher ceiling than Hutchinson but is currently a more unrefined product – and somewhat enigmatic, his decision to skip combine field drills the most recent case in point. In 30 games with the Ducks, the 6-4, 254-pounder had 19 sacks and 35½ tackles for loss. Depth and talent used to be calling cards of Seattle’s D-line and keeping Thibodeaux in the Pacific Northwest would immediately help replenishing those areas.
10. Lions [PROJECTED TRADE with Jets] – CB Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, Cincinnati: Reminder that Detroit moves up here after our earlier trade with the NYJ, who originally obtained the pick from Seattle as part of the Jamal Adams transaction. Reminder that the Lions secondary remains a mess despite using the third overall pick on CB Jeff Okudah two years ago. So why not address it further by taking Gardner, a Detroit native? “Sauce” would be a safe plug-and-play selection, the consensus All-American allowing only 20 receptions in 2021, picking off three passes and – evidence of his all-around game – posting 40 tackles and three sacks. And talk about shutdown – he never allowed a TD pass while with the Bearcats. His 6-3, 190-pound build is another selling point to a league that likes big corners.
11. Washington Commanders – WR Drake London, USC: They nominally addressed their quarterback dilemma with Wednesday’s acquisition of Wentz. What better way to assist him and supplement WR1 Terry McLaurin than with a 6-4, 219-pound Mike Evans type? London had seven TD grabs in eight games last season, which ended early due to a broken ankle that also kept him from competing at the combine.
12. Minnesota Vikings – OLB/DE Jermaine Johnson II: The Vikes used a committee approach on their way to 51 sacks last season but seem likely to let DE Everson Griffen and LB Anthony Barr go and will surely have to think twice about retaining DE Danielle Hunter, who’s owed an $18.5 million roster bonus later this month. Johnson (6-5, 254) looks ready to be far more than a backfill alternative and is probably a better scheme fit for new coordinator Ed Donatell, whose experience is mostly with 3-4 fronts. He comes off a productive senior season that included 11½ sacks and 17½ TFLs.
13. Cleveland Browns – DT Jordan Davis, Georgia: Perhaps the star of the combine after the 6-6, 341-pounder – and that’s a slimmed down version – blazed a 4.78 40 and looked great in the drills. An All-American in 2021, Davis also won the Bednarik Award as college football’s top defensive player. He should be a top priority for a defense that has major issues up the middle.
14. Baltimore Ravens – C Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa: The upside of the consensus All-American and 2021 Rimington Trophy winner is hard to ignore – and should largely offset any concern about his short arms. Baltimore will likely need to replace C Bradley Bozeman, who’s unsigned for 2022.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (from Miami Dolphins) – DE/OLB David Ojabo, Michigan: A native of Nigeria who grew up in Scotland, he had one tackle as a sophomore in 2020, so bit of an understatement to deem Ojabo raw. But what a breakout during his junior year, when the 6-4, 250-pounder erupted for 11 sacks – and it certainly didn’t hurt playing opposite Hutchinson. And with DE Derek Barnett headed for the open market, and former Wolverine Brandon Graham, who’s about to turn 34, trying to come back from a blown Achilles, Philadelphia clearly needs reinforcements off the edge.
16. Eagles (from Indianapolis Colts) – WR Treylon Burks, Arkansas: Yes, this would mean a first-round wideout for a third consecutive year for Philly, but the team can afford this move given how flush GM Howie Roseman is with options in 2022. His 4.55 combine 40 seems downright pedestrian when stacked up against his receiver peers. But at 6-2, 225 pounds, Burks would bring a different element to a Smurf-ish group that hasn’t gotten enough from holdovers like Jalen Reagor or 2019 second-round bust J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Burks’ size would also be a plus for sometimes scattershot QB Jalen Hurts, and his potential as a Deebo Samuel-type weapon (1,216 yards and 12 TDs by way of 80 touches from scrimmage last season) would be a boon to any team while beautifully complementing 2021 first-rounder DeVonta Smith.
17. Los Angeles Chargers – CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU: It’s been four years since S Derwin James, injury history and all, fell to the Bolts with the 17th pick of the draft. If such an approach works once, why not go back to the well? Stingley’s talents as a cover man are undeniable and were apparent for the 2019 national champion Tigers, for whom he had six interceptions, earning All-American honors for his efforts. But Lisfranc surgery limited him to three games in 2021 – a year after he was slowed by ankle issues – and prevented him from working out in Indy. But if Stingley performs well at LSU’s pro day on April 6, he could vault himself back into consideration as a top-five option and ahead of Gardner. The Chargers could most definitely use corner help, especially with veteran Chris Harris likely moving on.
18. New Orleans Saints – QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh: He might be the most NFL-ready passer in the draft. A four-year starter, Pickett has poise, accuracy, a quick release, production (4,319 yards and 42 TDs passing in 2021) and solid athleticism – perhaps enough NFL traits that he could restore New Orleans atop a diminished NFC South as a rookie.
19. Eagles – CB Trent McDuffie, Washington: With a 4.44 40 time, elite cover skills and smarts, he’s pretty much made to order for a secondary that doesn’t have a whole lot going for it aside from CB Darius Slay.
20. Giants [PROJECTED TRADE with Steelers] – OT Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa: An excellent athlete who played the left side in college, Penning has the ability and signature fire that are exactly what’s needed for an offense looking to unleash RB Saquon Barkley anew while creating better conditions as the new regime freshly assesses QB Daniel Jones.
21. New England Patriots – WR Jameson Williams, Alabama: No reason to waste (more) time before remedying 2019’s first-round mistake with WR N’Keal Harry. Williams might have been a top-10 pick had he not torn an ACL in the national championship loss to Georgia. He’s a burner who was remarkably productive in 2021, averaging 100 receiving yards and a TD catch per game. The Ohio State transfer didn’t play with Pats QB Mac Jones in Tuscaloosa, but – as soon as he’s healthy – he has the goods to develop into the dominant target this team has long lacked.
22. Las Vegas Raiders – DT Devonte Wyatt, Georgia: Davis’ running mate in Athens, Wyatt actually ran even faster (4.77) than his buddy at the combine … though he is a diminutive 6-3 and 304 pounds by comparison. Cat quick, Wyatt has the size that should allow him to operate in multiple fronts. Like Walker, his stats at Georgia probably suffered due to the Bulldogs’ deep rotation. The Raiders, who have no interior depth to speak of at this point, would be fortunate to start a new rotation with Wyatt.
23. Arizona Cardinals – DE/OLB George Karlaftis, Purdue: In two full seasons (2019, 2021) for the Boilermakers, he compiled 13 sacks, 32 QB hits and 64 hurries. Seems like a pretty good replacement candidate for Chandler Jones in the desert.
24. Dallas Cowboys – G Zion Johnson, Boston College: Strong as an ox (combine-high 32 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press) but with relatively light feet, he could give this offensive line a nice shot in the arm just as G Connor Williams’ contract expires.
25. Buffalo Bills – LB Nakobe Dean, Georgia: The two-time-defending AFC East champs aren’t lacking for much but could use more juice at the second level, especially as MLB Tremaine Edmunds enters his walk year. Dean’s instincts, range, intelligence, leadership and background with a championship program would make him a great fit in Buffalo … even if his 5-11, 229-pound stature is suboptimal.
26. Tennessee Titans – LB Devin Lloyd, Utah: He features an all-around skill set that allows him to be a multi-faceted weapon, something the two-time-defending AFC south titlists haven’t had at linebacker recently. Lloyd had 22 TFLs in 2021 and surely would rack up quite a few more while operating in conjunction with this Tennessee front.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DB Dax Hill, Michigan: Given the exodus it seems they’re facing – unless (for now) retired QB Tom Brady reverses himself – the Bucs could go any number of directions in the draft. One could be shoring up a secondary that will likely be bidding adieu to starting CB Carlton Davis and S Jordan Whitehead in free agency. Hill can play in the slot, box or center field, his 4.38 speed a welcome trait at any of those spots.
28. Green Bay Packers – WR Chris Olave, Ohio State: No, the Pack haven’t drafted a receiver in Round 1 since former Brett Favre favorite Sterling Sharpe in 1988. Yes, this could be the year they’ll need to strongly consider it with neither All-Pro Davante Adams nor Marquez Valdes-Scantling under contract – and what an appropriate “welcome back” gift for Rodgers, whose recent playoff flops suggest he could really use another weapon on the outside. Olave’s speed and smooth route running could eventually make him a No. 1 option, not to mention his ability to find the end zone – that occurring 32 times in his last 33 games for the Buckeyes.
29. Dolphins (from San Francisco 49ers) – OT Bernhard Raimann, Central Michigan: The head coach, Mike McDaniel, is new, but the necessity to safeguard – and better evaluate – QB Tua Tagovailoa does not change. One seemingly obvious way to do that is by upgrading one of the league’s worst offensive lines with an athletic tackle.
30. Kansas City Chiefs – DB Jalen Pitre, Baylor: A team that may not be able to re-sign All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu might want to be on the lookout for a young player with similar – if not Honey Badger-level – versatility at his disposal.
31. Cincinnati Bengals – OL Kenyon Green, Texas A&M: When you might have the league’s next great quarterback (Joe Burrow) on your roster, but he’s sacked a league-high 51 times in the regular season – and 19 more in four playoff games this year – pretty obvious what needs to be done. Green played every O-line position but center for the Aggies in 2021 but took most of his college snaps at left guard.
32. Lions (from Los Angeles Rams) – QB Matt Corral, Mississippi: He’s not big (6-2, 212), though might be a different story if you could measure his heart. He’s also got sizable arm strength and athleticism and might be the kind of guy you want to invest in for a year – or at least part of a season – before unleashing him. Due to the structure of his contract, Detroit will likely have QB Jared Goff for one more season. But Corral might be worth a late first-round pick that could solidify this franchise’s long-term outlook … assuming he dials back his devil-may-care approach, which won’t work so well when he breaks the pocket to take on NFL defenders.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism