(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports) — The completion of Super Bowl LII officially heralds the beginning of the NFL offseason. Next month’s scouting combine looms as the next (and most important) benchmark for most draft prospects. Medical checks, interviews and even weigh-ins can often send stocks soaring or flooring.
With that in mind, here’s our latest first-round projection as the pre-draft process moves into high gear:
1. Browns — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: We know, they need a quarterback. But how about waiting a few picks before taking a swing at another passer who’s going to come with significant questions and instead replicate last year’s formula and take the best player on the board? Barkley’s a three-down stud who could have the same kind of franchise-altering impact recent rookie backs Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara have made. Barkley’s sterling off-field reputation also makes him a face-of-the-franchise option. And with leading rusher Isaiah Crowell headed for free agency, Cleveland certainly has a need here as well.
2. Giants — Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: He’ll need to clean up his footwork and decision-making, but he’s arguably the top passing prospect in this
year’s crop — even if a relatively disappointing 2017 season has (at least temporarily) dampened talk of him being a slam dunk No. 1 overall pick. Still, Darnold seems to have all the mental and physical tools, including impressive mobility, to be an upper-tier starter. Maybe the Giants let him ripen behind Eli Manning, or maybe Darnold hastens the two-time Super Bowl MVP’s inevitable end in New York.
3. Colts — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: It’s been a minute since pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were protecting leads for this team. Of course, leads were hard to come by in 2017 without Andrew Luck, and it is tempting to consider a guard as special as Quenton Nelson to look after him. But better for Indy to draft a special, hard-working player at a hard-to-fill position and load up on blocking help later, if not in free agency. And a guy like Chubb would certainly be a nice counter against mobile passers like Deshaun Watson and Marcus Mariota in the AFC South.
4. Browns (from Texans) — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Maybe Cleveland earmarks some of its massive free agency funds for Kirk Cousins. Maybe new GM John Dorsey picks Darnold or Josh Allen at No. 1. Or perhaps he goes with our Barkley/Rosen combo, obtaining two blue chippers that could finally settle the backfield for a decade. Rosen could be the most NFL-ready passer coming out, seemingly possessing the accuracy and smarts this franchise has long sought under center. However durability and personality questions are likely to follow him for a while.
5. Broncos — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Another team likely to be heavily involved in the Cousins sweepstakes. But the fiery Heisman Trophy winner and leader the Super Bowl 50 champs have lacked is quickly forming Denver connections, signing with a Colorado-based sports agency before playing for the Broncos’ coaching staff in the Senior Bowl. Mayfield is also a precision thrower who doesn’t take long to synthesize a playbook. Perhaps the missing ingredient for a team that still has a championship-level defense.
6. Jets — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: Yet another team that will be in the market for either Cousins or another veteran passer, or hoping to perhaps get a shot at one of the top rookie quarterbacks. But with the way this board falls (and free agency the obvious unknown), let’s ticket Ward to the Jets, who addressed the safety position atop last year’s draft but still have issues on the perimeter of the secondary. Ward might be the type of player who can take away the likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Jarvis Landry.
7. Buccaneers — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: The Bucs secondary is due to be gutted by free agency, with CB Brent Grimes and S T.J. Ward among vets set to hit the open market. Fitzpatrick seems to project as a safety, but he could certainly see time at corner or in the slot and would be an asset in just about any capacity for a Tampa Bay defense that ranked last both overall and against the pass in 2017.
8. Bears — Connor Williams, OT, Texas: Chicago’s priority has to be putting better pieces around QB Mitchell Trubisky. It’s especially tempting to slot a wideout here, but there doesn’t seem to be one who’s emerged as a justifiable top-10 selection. Williams seems like a good enough alternative given Trubisky was sacked 31 times in 12 starts. And despite the strong start to RB Jordan Howard’s career, the Bears’ run game has only been middle of the road the past two years.
x-9. 49ers — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: His only sin seems to be the fact he doesn’t play a premium position, at least in the context of draft value. But based on merit, it could be argued Nelson is a top-five pick. He’d certainly be a justifiable addition to an ascending San Francisco offense, but one that didn’t run the ball especially well in 2017. And GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan would surely like to add an interior bodyguard as they build up QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s supporting cast.
x-10. Raiders — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: NaVorro Bowman was a hugely stabilizing force to the Oakland run defense after switching Bay Area addresses midway through the 2017 season. But he’s about to turn 30 and re-signing him is an obvious risk given his injury history. Edmunds might just project as a younger — and possibly better — version of Bowman as an every-down backer who can swallow running backs in the run and pass games, has the range to cover downfield and can also boost the pass rush if asked.
x-Order to be determined by coin flip at later date
11. Dolphins — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: The small-school knock followed him to the Senior Bowl, where he didn’t have a great week of practice but shined in the game, sacking Baker Mayfield once and later scoring a TD off a fumble recovery. Miami could be the ideal spot for Davenport given he could refine his game and rotate in on passing downs before potentially taking over for DE Cameron Wake down the road.
12. Bengals — Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma: Given the weapons on the roster, it’s inexcusable that Cincinnati finished last in total offense in 2017. And, yes, the problem was largely a function of an offensive line that deteriorated after the organization foolishly let so many quality starters walk. Brown, massive at 6-8 and 345 pounds, would solve the right tackle position. We know he did a nice job opening run lanes in college for ex-Sooners mate Joe Mixon, who didn’t see much daylight as a rookie.
13. Redskins — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: Talent and need intersect nicely here. No team was worse against the run in 2017 than Washington. The 6-4, 346-pound Vea would certainly fill some gaps and form a nice tandem up front over the next few years with 2017 first rounder Jonathan Allen.
14. Packers — Derwin James, S, Florida State: The Packers simply need more defensive play makers, especially behind the line. James didn’t appear to be all the way back last year after injuring his knee in 2016. But when healthy, he can be disruptive in numerous capacities.
15. Cardinals — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: He may have more upside than any quarterback in this draft and certainly has the best arm strength. But Allen admits his footwork needs polish, and it’s one reason he was a 56% passer in college. The accuracy must improve given so many balls would have to come out quickly for a team that features WR Larry Fitzgerald and RB David Johnson. But new OC Mike McCoy works well with young passers, and GM Steve Keim may have to find his next one in the draft given his current cap space restrictions.
16. Ravens — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: Though QB Joe Flacco’s back problems were an issue early last season, it’s also apparent this team needs to replenish its weapons in a passing game, which will be further diminished assuming WR Mike Wallace and TE Ben Watson move on as free agents.
17. Chargers — Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: No team in the AFC struggled more to stop the run than the Bolts. Payne could truly be a force inside given all the attention DEs Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram command on the edges.
18. Seahawks — Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: A lot of indications Seattle could be headed toward a defensive reboot. At 6-1, 190 pounds and owning excellent ball skills — Jackson picked off eight passes last season — he could be a reasonable facsimile of Richard Sherman.
19. Cowboys — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: Jaylon Smith may never be the force he was when healthy at Notre Dame. Sean Lee will be 32 this summer and has never played a full NFL season. Though Smith skews small (6-1, 225), his athleticism and ability would probably be too much for Dallas to pass up, especially if he drops this far.
20. Lions — Sony Michel, RB, Georgia: Maybe he was under the radar a bit given Nick Chubb got more work for the Bulldogs. But Michel’s gifts were on full display in the College Football Playoff — the Dawgs should have used him more against Alabama in the title game — and his 7.9 yards per carry average against SEC competition last year is mind-blowing. Detroit has ranked 28th or worse running the ball over the past four seasons and was dead last in 2015 and ’17.
21. Bills — Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan: He’s about 6-1 and 285 pounds, so not your traditional interior run stuffer, though neither is pending Buffalo free agent Kyle Williams. However Hurst’s quickness could cast him as a Geno Atkins-type player, which would be helpful on a defense that relies on its front four to create pressure.
22. Bills (from Chiefs) — Billy Price, C, Ohio State: Yes, Buffalo has an obvious need at quarterback. But they have an even more immediate hole at center after unexpectedly losing anchor Eric Wood to a premature retirement.
23. Rams — Donte Jackson, CB, LSU: Hard to go wrong with defensive backs coming out of Baton Rouge. Jackson’s versatility would make him a nice option in L.A. given Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner are about to test the open market.
24. Panthers — Arden Key, DE, LSU: It’s tempting to give them a linebacker or a center with mainstays Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil, respectively, announcing 2018 will be their final season. But Key might address a more pressing problem with Julius Peppers, 38, unsigned and Charles Johnson probably at the end of the road. Ron Rivera seems like the right guy to harness Key’s eye-popping talent.
25. Titans — Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: Tennessee could use a chess piece like Evans at the second level, and new coach Mike Vrabel knows a thing or two about employing such multi-dimensional talents.
26. Falcons — Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: His ability to work the middle of the field would make him a nice alternative for QB Matt Ryan given Julio Jones will inevitably be doubled outside. And with Taylor Gabriel set to move on, Atlanta needs someone who can take over the slot and eventually move up to the No. 2 role.
27. Saints — Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford: Never hurts to add a havoc-wreaking, relentless player to the middle of your defense, especially when he can operate between Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins.
28. Steelers — Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida: Pittsburgh could clearly use another talented corner, especially in an ongoing bid to topple the pass-centric Patriots, given Joe Haden’s struggles to stay healthy and Artie Burns’ propensity for lapses.
29. Jaguars — Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: A 6-4, 215-pound target is made to order for sometimes erratic QB Blake Bortles, whose already inexperienced receiving corps is poised to lose Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee in free agency.
30. Vikings — Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: Minnesota needs to get better up front, and they’ve already shown willingness to move T Mike Remmers to guard. McGlinchey would enable that move to become permanent.
31. Patriots — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: He’s sturdy, quick and versatile. Sounds like a Patriot, right? And they’ll likely need to reload a backfield they like to keep deep if Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead head for greener pastures.
32. Eagles — Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas: Even if Philly didn’t have so many linebackers without contracts in 2018, an upgrade certainly makes sense, especially in light of a mediocre pass defense that enjoys support from excellent defensive line play.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis