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NFL power rankings: How did 2018 draft shift balance of power?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   For NFL teams, taking the long-term view is essential in executing a draft plan. But developing a first-round pick can take many different forms.

Some of the most prized selections in this year’s draft might be in for a gradual introduction into the league, as teams look instead to rely on established veterans at the position for the time being. Yet other first-year players are in line to take roles as starters right away and could have the skill set to find success against a higher level of competition.

Here’s a look at nine rookies sure to make an instant impact in 2018.

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants, No. 2

As a potential focal point of the Giants’ offense, he’s the runaway favorite for offensive rookie of the year. Barkley is an every-down back who demonstrates speed, elusiveness, vision and power as a runner. He also will comfortably create mismatches in the passing game and should be a frequent target of Eli Manning. In both impact and output, he could set a high bar for this class.

Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts, No. 6

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck must have rejoiced when he found out about Indy’s selection. Nelson projects to step in right away at left guard and should be counted on as a stabilizing force inside the interior of the Colts line. Though he should make a difference in pass protection (Indianapolis gave up an NFL-worst 56 sacks), his best asset early on for Indianapolis may be his comfort opening holes for a ground game game that generated only 103.8 yards per game game last season.

Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears, No. 8

With excellent instincts, range, coverage skills and hitting ability, Smith projects to be an early contender for defensive rookie of the year. He should start alongside veteran Danny Trevathan from Day 1. And with Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s propensity to move inside linebackers around the formation in different blitzes, Chicago may utilize Smith all over the field.

Josh Rosen, QB, Arizona Cardinals, No. 10

Rosen was widely considered the quarterback in the class most ready to play right away, and he might get the chance to show why if Sam Bradford falters or has more knee issues. He’s accurate and displays refined mechanics and footwork – all of which are essential for rookie passers to get on the field and play well. With the Cardinals in a bit of a rebuild, the new coaching staff may opt to get that transition kick-started early if Rosen shows he’s up to the task.

Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers, No. 17

Many mock drafts projected James to go far earlier than he did, but he might have the best fit of any rookie defender despite his slide. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was seeking a hard-hitting, swift and versatile safety for a unit already replete with young talent. He helped Kam Chancellor shine in Seattle, and James – who has a very similar skill set to that of the Seahawks standout – could blossom into a star in Los Angeles.

Dallas Goedert, TE, Philadelphia Eagles, No. 49

The Eagles still have Zach Ertz, but Philly loves using two-tight-end sets. Filling in for Trey Burton, Goedert will have plenty of opportunities in the passing game. He is a dynamic threat who should be able to create mismatches for a deep and varied offense.

Derrius Guice, RB, Washington Redskins, No. 59

Guice tumbled to the second round, but he lands in a spot where he likely becomes the starter right away ahead of incumbent Robert Kelley. Many saw as the class’ second-ranked running back behind Barkley, and coach Jay Gruden has already talked about using him on first and second downs as Washington emphasizes improving a 28th-ranked rushing attack.

Royce Freeman, RB, Denver Broncos, No. 71

Though he registered 1,026 touches at Oregon, Freeman should still have plenty left in the early part of his career. He was slowed by a knee injury in 2016, but he has the power, vision and speed to make plays in Denver’s offense. With only Devontae Booker as his main competition for the starter’s role, Freeman should see plenty of work early and could become one of the surprises of the draft.

Harrison Phillips, DT, Buffalo Bills, No. 96

Veteran Kyle Williams turns 35 in June, and Buffalo drafted his eventual replacement late in the third round with Stanford’s Harrison Phillips. With a wrestling background, Phillips was ultra productive at Stanford. Don’t be surprised if he plays a significant role as the Bills look to elevate their 29th-ranked run defense.

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NFL RANKINGS: AFTER THE 2018 DRAFT

1. Eagles (1): TE Dallas Goedert was a nice draft pickup. Second-string D-line better than most top units. Now it’s just down to Carson Wentz’s recovery.

2. Patriots (2): They won’t admit drafting for need but picked replacements for Solder, Butler, Lewis, Amendola. Now they must replace TB12’s doldrums.

3. Falcons (8): GM Thomas Dimitroff managed to draft four studs onto roster that had few flaws. No team was closer to eliminating Eagles than this crew.

4. Vikings (3): NFL’s top-paid QB was ranked 94th-best player by peers. Ouch. Good reminder that championship-caliber roster must adjust to Kirk Cousins.

5. Rams (4): Case to be made they won offseason after trades for Cooks, Talib and Peters plus Suh signing. Yet “offseason champs” rarely win Super Bowl.

6. Chargers (9): Combo of pass rushers, corners and first rounder Derwin James may comprise league’s top nickel D. Bolts might finally be Lombardi-caliber.

7. Saints (5): Riddle us this — if you’re OK investing two first rounders into a pass rusher, why not pursue a proven player like franchised Ziggy Ansah?

8. Jaguars (6): They’re going to leave a mark. A team that was already rugged only got tougher and deeper during free agency and draft. AFC outlier.

9. Steelers (7): Still look legit. But Pittsburgh hasn’t been able to remotely address Ryan Shazier’s absence, and Le’Veon Bell distraction drags on.

10. Packers (10): Aaron Rodgers is back (and comfortably golfing). New GM Brian Gutekunst beefed up D. But Pack must overcome league’s roughest schedule.

11. Broncos (11): Bradley Chubb headlines what looks to be impact draft. New QB Case Keenum is apparently already winning over locker room. They’re back.

12. Texans (13): Deshaun Watson’s on way back. J.J. Watt’s on way back. Houston owns league’s easiest schedule. Could be a force with sufficient blocking.

13. Panthers (12): They have new offensive coordinator but no traditional lead back. Thomas Davis suspensions hurts, and secondary still a question.

14. Titans (15): Owners of second-easiest schedule, they could be nasty if receiving corps steps up and new coach Mike Vrabel has expected impact.

15. Chiefs (16): All six of their draft picks were devoted to defensive side. Only thing this squad may lack is meaningful experience for QB Pat Mahomes.

16. 49ers (14): A full season in Kyle Shanahan’s system plus getting a full season out of Jimmy G fuel buzz. But do Niners have enough at skill positions?

17. Giants (29): They got best player in draft, RB Saquon Barkley, and arguably best overall rookie crop. With OBJ on mend, Big Blue primed for big boost.

18. Cardinals (21): Reminder — they were 8-8 in 2017. Don’t sleep on team with sixth-ranked D that gets David Johnson back now that QB issue is solved.

19. Cowboys (17): With Zeke and ever better O-line, they’re built to grind opponents. But passing game, questionable D mean trouble if they fall behind.

20. Redskins (19): Upwardly mobile? Alex Smith could make ’em quickly forget about Captain Kirk. Allen and Payne could have dramatic effect from D-line.

21. Ravens (22): With one playoff appearance since Super Bowl XLVII, it had become apparent reset was needed. Outgoing GM Ozzie Newsome evidently agreed.

22. Lions (20): “Meh” is becoming ubiquitous … but it aptly describes Detroit, which feels 7-9-ish as team tries to adapt to rookie coach Matt Patricia.

23. Bengals (27): They’ve got talent, which seems upgraded by draft class, to return to relevance quickly … assuming Marvin Lewis can re-engineer DNA.

24. Buccaneers (26): GM Jason Licht has quietly had potentially first-rate offseason, and his club looks far tougher. Will it translate in loaded NFC South?

25. Bears (24): GM Ryan Pace has had louder first-rate offseason, upgrading around Mitchell Trubisky. But like Bucs, can Bears compete in division yet?

26. Raiders (23): Seems several of their rookies will need additional time to acclimate to NFL. Apropos since team, Gruden headed for adjustment period.

27. Seahawks (18): Didn’t feel like they did enough to address pressing needs … unless RB Rashaad Penny makes O-line shine, keeps defense off field.

28. Browns (25): Their navigation of draft board open to serious debate. That said, roster continues to rapidly improve for team that may approach 8-8.

29. Dolphins (31): Virtually everything rides on Ryan Tannehill’s ability to recalibrate to league, and offense to him. Suh-less defense remains mystery.

30. Bills (28): Quite a rankings tumble for playoff team. But Buffalo booted its quarterback, saw its O-line decimated and is unproven in several key spots.

31. Jets (30): Snagging Sam Darnold a stroke of good fortune this franchise rarely enjoys. But given state of roster, no reason to rush him into lineup.

32. Colts (32): Did Chris Ballard pick optimal players after Quenton Nelson? Is Andrew Luck any closer to throwing? Questions still far exceed answers.

Note: Previous rank noted in parentheses

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Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

NFL draft 2019 projected top 10: Rashan Gary, Nick Bosa lead dominant defensive line class

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   Even after teams pore over prospects for months, accepting some degree of risk is a necessity in the NFL draft.

Some players, however, have a more volatile projection than others. The “boom or bust” dichotomy can also depend on the team that picks a player, as well as his corresponding opportunity for development. (Recall that Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick in 2005, was seen as largely disappointing for most of his career with the 49ers. Yet he settled in as a three-time Pro Bowler in Kansas City before landing a massive contract following his trade to Washington.)

Here are 10 picks from the 2018 draft that rank highly both on risk and reward:

Josh Allen, QB, Bills (No. 7 overall): Perhaps no incoming player has a greater gulf between potential and production. If the Wyoming product is able to harness his ability to make the highlight-reel throw into some sustainable plan of attack, Buffalo’s gamble to trade up for him will be well worth it. But Allen regularly struggled in the face of pressure, and he should face heaps of it behind an offensive line ravaged by the loss of its three best starters this offseason. Even if LeSean McCoy, who turns 30 this summer, manages to reduce the heat on Allen — assuming he plays extensively in 2018 — a lackluster receiving corps may struggle to advance his development.

Marcus Davenport, DE, Saints (No. 14): Pound for pound, he might have had the best 40-yard dash mark (4.58 seconds) of any prospect at the NFL scouting combine. But that speed doesn’t always translate to the field, as the 6-6, 264-pounder’s pedestrian initial burst and lack of a pass rush plan might negate his otherwise significant potential. The Saints’ selection of him was made even more risky by the fact that they gave up a first rounder in 2019 to move up the board, and he’ll have to do more than take Cameron Jordan’s leftovers to warrant that price.

Kolton Miller, OT, Raiders (No. 15): The first draft class of the Jon Gruden-Reggie McKenzie pairing consisted of gambles throughout, none bigger (literally or figuratively) than Miller. The 6-9, 309-pounder represents a considerable bet on potential, as the technique and footwork lapses he displayed at UCLA will prove even more problematic against NFL edge rushers if unsolved. He should be able to learn behind incumbent left tackle Donald Penn for at least a year, but failure to adapt could be catastrophic since Miller isn’t built to kick inside, where Oakland is stacked anyway.

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Cowboys (No. 19): At his best, he looks capable of staying on the field for any assignment that could be asked of a linebacker. Yet he’s something of a wild-card as a one-year starter who too often lacked discipline. Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith seem like long shots to make it through the season fully healthy, so Vander Esch could be forced into action more than he’s ready for and potentially exposed without veteran protection.

Terrell Edmunds, S, Steelers (No. 28): His selection had some of the draft’s coolest connections, as Ryan Shazier announced the pick that made him and brother Tremaine Edmunds (No. 16 to the Bills) the first pair of brothers to be taken in the first round of the same draft. But Pittsburgh unquestionably made the biggest reach of Round 1, as there’s a strong case to be made Edmunds wasn’t one of the top five safeties in this class. The Steelers can hide some of his shortcomings by limiting him his responsibilities in certain zone coverages, but he won’t be the man-to-man asset that the team needs against the likes of the Patriots.

Mike Gesicki, TE, Dolphins (No. 42): The former volleyball standout is at his best when left to go up and pluck the ball from the air, so he could become dominant in traffic, especially on red zone targets. But he’s not fully there yet, and his lackadaisical blocking is bound to get him chewed out by either a coach or a teammate. The hope is for him to end up as a Jimmy Graham-type left to split out wide, but Adam Gase’s dalliance with Julius Thomas highlighted how those experiments often fall flat.

Kemoko Turay, DE, Colts (No. 52): While at Rutgers, he occasionally looked like he had the skill set of a future Pro Bowler, with the ability to contort around blockers and close on quarterbacks. But he disappeared for stretches amid injuries and is still quite raw. And, unlike Davenport in New Orleans, Turay won’t even have the benefit of a dominant teammate to mask his inexperience or regularly afford him one-on-one opportunities.

Donte Jackson, CB, Panthers (No. 55): His rare closing speed (tied for a combine-best 4.32-second 40-yard dash) and special ball skills should serve him well on a Carolina defense that affords its secondary opportunities to make plays. But at 5-10 and 178 pounds, he’ll be dwarfed by the likes of Julio Jones and Mike Evans in the NFC South.

D.J. Chark, WR, Jaguars (No. 61): Jacksonville loves to give Blake Bortles opportunities to go deep with play-action, and Chark’s 4.34 speed will make him a menace to cover down the sideline. But it’s hard to trust a player with hands as shaky as his, and the Jags might struggle to find more than a one-note role for him given his frequent failures to fight for positioning on jump balls and underneath routes. Bortles’ bouts with inaccuracy could also leave Chark frustrated and allow defenses to pay him little mind.

Brian O’Neill, OT, Vikings (No. 62): At nearly 6-7 and 297 pounds, with nimble feet, he has the tools to be a high-end left tackle. Those traits won’t matter, however, if he can’t clean up his technique issues, including a tendency to lunge. NFL defensive linemen might also feast on his vulnerability to the bull rush. If O’Neill proves to be a weak link on an otherwise stellar offense, Mike Zimmer won’t hesitate to give him the hook.

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NFL draft 2019 projected top 10: Rashan Gary, Nick Bosa lead dominant defensive line class

Evaluating a draft class a full year out can be a fool’s errand. After all, Baker Mayfield wasn’t even in the conversation for the No. 1 pick in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 season, let alone before it.

But with several stars already emerging, it’s worth taking a look at which college players could make waves next April. The presumed 2019 class already looks loaded on the defensive line, while a less-heralded quarterback group could still produce interesting options.

Here are the top 10 players to watch — for now — a year away from the 2019 NFL draft:

Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State: He’s not just riding the coattails of older brother Joey, another former Buckeye standout and current Pro Bowl pass rusher for the Chargers. The younger Bosa racked up 16 tackles for losses last year and has the blend of speed and power that will make him an attractive early selection.

Rashan Gary, DE/DT, Michigan: The former No. 1 overall recruit has already delivered on his considerable hype, and the best could be yet to come. Displaying moves far more refined than one would expect from a player his age (he’s only 20), he looks comfortable both pressuring the quarterback and making plays against the run.

Ed Oliver, DT, Houston: The first ever underclassmen to win the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman, he already has his sights on the next level after announcing he intends to enter the draft next year.

Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson: Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant all opted to bypass this year’s draft, making the Tigers’ line the most imposing in the country. Yet it’s massive Lawrence (6-4, 340) who shapes up to be the biggest threat of all considering his ability to command double teams yet still blow up plays in the backfield.

Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon: At 6-6 and 225 pounds, he can deliver strikes downfield with impressive efficiency (65% completion rate in two years). Teams will want to see him bring his skill set together for a full campaign, though, given that he has played just 16 games total so far.

Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan: The Mississippi transfer is on track for what could be a star-making campaign after getting a waiver to play right away. Patterson completed nearly 64% of his passes last year and is a dynamic distributor capable of making plays outside the pocket.

Greg Little, OT, Mississippi: NFL teams hungry for a blind side protector after a pedestrian crop of offensive tackle prospects this year should fall for Little. He and Alabama tackle Jonah Williams have both the sizable frame and nimble footwork to shut down opposing edge rushers.

Andraez ‘Greedy’ Williams, CB, LSU: The “Greedy” nickname is apt, as he recorded six interceptions and 17 passes defensed last season. At 6-2 and 183 pounds, he should turn heads if he decides to declare after his redshirt sophomore year.

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn: Deciding to return for his redshirt junior year should pay off, as he will benefit from another year of seasoning. If Stidham displays a quicker trigger and cleans up some of his turnover issues, he should be an attractive first-round option given his size (6-3, 214 pounds) and accuracy.

Raekwon Davis, DT, Alabama: A mountain at 6-7 and 316 pounds, he led the Crimson Tide with 8½ sacks. But Davis isn’t solely reliant on his physical tools. He regularly exhibits impressive technique and pad level for a player of his size, tools that will serve him well in the NFL.

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Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz

NFL draft steals: Cowboys have some of most promising value picks

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   In the immediate aftermath of the NFL draft, it can be difficult to define the event beyond the first-round picks.

Yet as crucial as the highest rookie investments are, history has repeatedly shown that what can truly set a team up for long-term success is finding breakout players on the second and third days. And though it can take years to determine which ones outperformed their draft slots, there were several taken over the weekend who already appear to offer value well beyond where they were selected.

Connor Williams, G/T, Cowboys (second round, No. 50 overall): Jerry Jones said the Cowboys were driven to this pick in part by the memory of then-Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn terrorizing backup left tackle Chaz Green last year as he racked up six sacks in one game. Williams might not project as the blind side protector he showed promise of becoming while at Texas, but he can handle the responsibility in a pinch. He could end up having a better career than several of the first-round linemen.

Michael Gallup, WR, Cowboys (third round, No. 81): He might not make fans forget about Dez Bryant in his prime, but he’s what the offense needs right now. At Colorado State, the acrobatic pass catcher showed a penchant for creating separation with precise route running. Gallup could form a quick rapport with Dak Prescott, which might be important given how inconsistent Terrance Williams and Allen Hurns have been throughout their careers.

Mason Rudolph, QB, Steelers (third round, No. 76): The first-round hype was neither accurate nor fair, as teams revealed the Oklahoma State standout’s stock wasn’t on the same level as that of the five quarterbacks taken on Day 1. Still, Rudolph could develop into a fine successor for Ben Roethlisberger if he can take advantage of his deep passing prowess by learning to go through his progressions comfortably.

Deadrin Senat, DT, Falcons (third round, No. 90): Three years after Thomas Dimitroff found a fifth-round gem in Grady Jarrett, Atlanta takes a squat but disruptive force in the middle. Sound familiar? The South Florida bulldozer doesn’t have the same burst or pass-rushing ability as Jarrett, but with time the two could become one of the NFL’s more formidable defensive tackle duos.

Harrison Phillips, DT, Bills (third round, No. 96): Consistent if not flashy, he is a reliable run stopper who should generate a consistent push. After Buffalo traded away its two second-round picks to move up for Josh Allen, coach Sean McDermott had to be thrilled the Stanford product was still available with the team’s lone Day 2 selection. Phillips should instantly aid the 29th-ranked run defense as a reserve and eventually take over for Kyle Williams.

Josh Sweat, DE, Eagles (fourth round, No. 130): In a league that puts a premium on pass rushers, the defending champions found one Saturday with first-round traits. Teams were wary of a high school knee injury that nearly caused Sweat to lose his left leg, but the Eagles were confident in his outlook after he showed plenty of promise at Florida State. As part of an already loaded rotation, he can chase down quarterbacks in short stretches as he adjusts to the rigors of the NFL.

Maurice Hurst, DT, Raiders (fifth round, No. 140): Maybe medical concerns and inconsistency were enough to drop him further than most thought he would fall. But no other interior defender in this class can match the ability to shoot gaps and snake into the backfield that Hurst showed at Michigan. After gambling repeatedly earlier in the draft, Oakland found a top-50 caliber talent waiting on Day 3.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB, Rams (fifth round, No. 160): Los Angeles’ draft capital amounted to spare change after a series of trades that turned up the wattage on the team’s star power. Yet their depleted edge rusher rotation found a late-round pick-me-up in Okoronkwo, Oklahoma’s fluid threat who was likely overlooked by many due to his height (6-1).

Jamarco Jones, OT, Seahawks (fifth round, No. 168): On a perpetually short-handed Seattle front, the former Ohio State protector shapes up as a starter in the near future. Not bad given that he was taken with the last of the Seahawks’ four fifth-round selections and had to wait while several less polished offensive linemen were picked ahead of him.

Christian Sam, LB, Patriots (sixth round, No. 178): Of course a Bill Belichick selection would find its way onto this list. New England didn’t address its linebacker corps until Day 3, but it landed a rangy and hyperactive tackler (127 last season at Arizona State) in Sam. He should help solidify the unit even as a backup while also contributing on special teams.

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With the 2018 NFL draft now in the books, the dust will begin to settle for the talent acquisition portion of the offseason. Now comes the assembly phase. Rookie minicamps will soon take place, veteran strength and conditioning workouts continue, and in roughly a month, offseason practices begin.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most intriguing post-draft story lines around the league:

State of the Browns: This offseason featured dramatic moves for Cleveland. From the trades for wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and cornerback Damarious Randall, to the signing of seven free agents. Taking Baker Mayfield first overall marked the pinnacle. But how quickly will it all come together? Hue Jackson (1-31 the last two seasons) will start Taylor while developing Mayfield. How long will they manage to keep the Heisman Trophy winner in a backup role? That depends on Taylor’s success. Meanwhile, future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas has retired. Cleveland will try to replace him with second-round pick Austin Corbett.

Win-now Giants: By passing on Sam Darnold or another top quarterback at No. 2, and instead taking running back Saquon Barkley, the Giants signaled they remain fully confident in Eli Manning. Barkley continues the upgrading of Manning’s supporting cast after the free-agent signing of left tackle Nate Solder. Now, the attention shifts back to Odell Beckham Jr. The Giants resisted pressure to trade him. Now will they give him the rich contract extension he seeks?

The Patriots’ present: Forget prepping for life after Brady. Bill Belichick remains focused on the now. He gave Brady his replacement for Solder (Georgia left tackle Isaiah Wynn 23rd overall), and added a potential big-play running back (Georgia’s Sony Michel 31st overall). The Patriots have suffered key losses in free agency before but always plug in new pieces and keep rolling. They aim to do so once again.

Jon Gruden’s comeback: Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie passed on a much-needed top-flight defensive player at 15th overall. Instead, they picked UCLA’s Kolton Miller, who could start at right tackle. Defensive help followed on Days 2 and 3 of the draft. But the Raiders still have a hole at inside linebacker with veteran play-maker NaVorro Bowman remaining unsigned. Gruden’s other ongoing mission involves helping quarterback Derek Carr reach elite status. Giving him a weapon like wideout Martavis Bryant (acquired via trade from the Steelers last week) should help.

Ravens’ QB picture: You knew they would take a developmental quarterback with Joe Flacco aging. But Ozzie Newsome made a splash, trading back into the first round to take Lamar Jackson. The rookie could benefit from a developmental year behind Flacco and fellow former Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. But after this season, Flacco has no guaranteed money left on his contract.

Vrabel’s first go-round: The former Patriots linebacker began his head coaching career by taking a pair of athletic, versatile and physical linebackers (Alabama’s Rashaan Evans 22nd and Boston College’s Harold Landry 41st). Those moves signify the kind of mindset Vrabel wants his squad to adopt. Over the next few weeks, Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur will continue installing their systems while laying the foundation for what they hope is a productive first training camp.

Year 2 in Buffalo: Coach Sean McDermott and the Bills find themselves in an interesting position. They’re trying to make it back to the playoffs after squeaking in last season. But they’ve hit the reset button on offense by shipping Taylor to Cleveland, signing A.J. McCarron in free agency, and drafting Josh Allen seventh overall. Meanwhile, they’re also having to replace two long-time veteran offensive linemen in Richie Incognito and Eric Wood. Can fifth-round guard Wyatt Teller (Virginia Tech guard) help here? Buffalo will have to rely heavily on its defense again. Two draft picks, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (16th overall) and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips (third round) could provide sparks.

Seattle’s new Griffin: The Seahawks delivered one of the more emotional stories of the draft when they selected Shaquem Griffin in the fifth round. Griffin, who joins his twin brother, defensive back Shaquill, on the roster, becomes the first NFL player with only one hand to be drafted. He shined at the scouting combine with dazzling speed and aims to prove he’s more than a feel-good story. The 6-0, 227-pounder will likely see time in sub packages as a linebacker, and on special teams.

Rams’ reload: After an aggressive March and early April (trading for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and wide receiver Brandin Cooks while signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh), the Rams used the draft to bolster depth. In OTAs, the focus will center on fitting all these new pieces together with the core group that produced the NFC West title. Another priority: signing defensive lineman Aaron Donald to a much-deserved contract extension.

Recovering quarterbacks: The Miami Dolphins passed on drafting a quarterback despite Ryan Tannehill coming off two major left knee injuries in the past 18 months. They’ve said all along that they view him as their starter for 2018 and expect he’ll be ready to take the field for offseason practices. But Tannehill hasn’t played a game since December of 2016. Meanwhile, OTAs will feature continued recoveries for two other QBs coming off ACL tears. Neither Houston’s Deshaun Watson nor Philly’s Carson Wentz will practice this spring, but continue to aim for Week 1 returns.

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Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

NFL draft grades 2018: Which teams had best, worst classes?

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   NFL draft grades — an annual exercise of hubris as “draft experts” tell the league’s front office executives and scouts how they performed over the course of three days. (And let’s note here, it’s virtually impossible to assign any fair assessment to a player until he’s been a pro for at least three seasons.)

But in this era of instant gratification, who wants to wait until 2021? With that take it FWIW caveat, our “first impression, ahem, grades” for all 32 teams:

TRACKER: Round 1 | Round 2-3 | Round 4-7

New York Giants: A+

New GM Dave Gettleman just nailed it. First, give him credit for taking Penn State RB Saquon Barkley at No. 2 rather than reaching for a quarterback. Expect Barkley’s impact to be wide-reaching in the short and long run. G Will Hernandez and OLB Lorenzo Carter should be starters by training camp. And Richmond QB Kyle Lauletta (Round 4) might quickly push aside 2017 third rounder Davis Webb as Eli Manning’s backup and, perhaps, eventual successor.

Atlanta Falcons: A

Looks like another masterful job by GM Thomas Dimitroff. He didn’t overthink it when WR Calvin Ridley was sitting there at No. 26 or when CB Isaiah Oliver was there at No. 58. Neither addressed a need, yet both provide significant upgrades to an already stacked roster. DL Deadrin Senat did fill a crack in Round 3.

Chicago Bears: A

At No. 8, they may have gotten the draft’s best linebacker, Georgia’s Roquan Smith, who’s plenty capable of expanding on a proud Chicago tradition. At No. 39, they may have gotten the draft’s best center in Iowa’s James Daniels. And, after trading up to No. 51, yes, they just may wind up getting the most impactful receiver with Memphis’ Anthony Miller. Bravo, Ryan Pace.

Denver Broncos: A

GM John Elway must be living right with a gift like pass rusher Bradley Chubb sitting there at No. 5. He could restore this defense to dominance. Third-round RB Royce Freeman could make Broncos Country forget C.J. Anderson, and second-round WR Courtland Sutton may eventually do the same to Demaryius Thomas. Elway appeared to find a lot of potential contributors in the middle rounds. And given how well QB Case Keenum has apparently fit into this locker room, probably wise for Elway to resist the urge to draft another quarterback.

Arizona Cardinals: A-

They were staring at a bleak future in a division that seems laden with young quarterbacking royalty. But GM Steve Keim pulled a rabbit out of his hat by obtaining pick No. 10 for UCLA QB Josh Rosen. It’s worth wondering if Bruce Arians regrets retiring now that Rosen and second-round WR Christian Kirk should be connecting for years as part of a promising trio that includes RB David Johnson.

Jacksonville Jaguars: A-

If QB Blake Bortles was held in higher regard, we’d be talking about this team as a juggernaut. First-round DT Taven Bryan, second-round WR D.J. Chark and third-round S Ronnie Harrison might all make instant splashes as rookies if they played elsewhere. But all will have to scrap for snaps here. Sixth-round QB Tanner Lee comes with a nice level of buzz and might prove a viable fallback down the road if Bortles falters.

New England Patriots: A-

Their evaluation always requires a deeper dive, though Bill Belichick did fill several needs even if he’d cringe at that framing. Isaiah Wynn, assuming he can handle an NFL tackle’s responsibilities despite projections he’d fit better at guard, could take over for Nate Solder. RB Sony Michel is far more explosive than Dion Lewis. Second-round CB Duke Dawson eases the Malcolm Butler divorce. The Pats also swung a deal for San Francisco RT Trent Brown, who’s started 26 games over the past two seasons, and picked up Chicago’s second-round pick in 2019. The head scratcher was the decision not to take a quarterback who could develop behind Tom Brady … unless LSU’s Danny Etling surprises on a Brady-esque level.

New York Jets: A-

GM Mike Maccagnan’s gamble to trade up three spots to No. 3 (for three second rounders) paid off more handsomely than he probably could have imagined. Eight months ago, Jets fans wondered if their team would go 0-16 in order to secure QB Sam Darnold. New York finished 5-11 but got Darnold, who’d likely win an election as the draft’s top passing prospect, anyway. Now, has he ended the Jets’ perpetual quest for a franchise passer? Third-round DL Nathan Shepherd and fourth-round TE Chris Herndon could both be Week 1 starters, though that says as much about the state of the roster as it does about their readiness.

Baltimore Ravens: B+

This draft feels befitting of outgoing GM Ozzie Newsome’s Lombardi-plated legacy. Yes, major gamble taking QB Lamar Jackson, but it could pay off in spades — and may as well get that fifth-year option with a roll of the dice like this after Newsome deftly worked back into the end of Round 1. Hayden Hurst, a former minor league pitcher who may be more accurate right now than Jackson (57% completion rate at Louisville), and Mark Andrews form a nifty tight end duo that should pay immediate dividends to Joe Flacco and to Jackson eventually. Third-round T Orlando Brown and fifth-round WR Jordan Lasley are classic risk-reward types. And nice to see Newsome get one more player from his alma mater, fourth-round Alabama CB Anthony Averett.

Buffalo Bills: B+

Must admire GM Brandon Beane’s aggressiveness in his first draft, as he completed his weeks-long trek up the board to get Wyoming QB Josh Allen at No. 7 before dealing up a second time Thursday night for Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds at No. 16. Both have massive ceilings but should be afforded the patience to develop. Third-round DT Harrison Phillips will become a fan favorite (he somehow managed to make 103 tackles last year from a position not known for staggering numbers). However will Beane regret not doing more to replace retired linemen Eric Wood and Richie Incognito?

Green Bay Packers: B+

Interesting maiden draft for GM Brian Gutekunst. A trade with the Saints netted a 2019 first rounder. The Pack’s first two picks were understandably spent on corners Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Super-sized WR Equanimeous St. Brown (6-5, 214) is an intriguing project who went later than expected in Round 6. But did Gutekunst really need to draft a punter and a long snapper?

Houston Texans: B+

Remarkable haul given they didn’t pick until Round 3. S Justin Reid and OL Martinas Rankin should step into starting roles. Keep an eye on sixth-round DE Duke Ejiofor, who could flourish opposite J.J. Watt. And don’t forget, the Texans’ first rounder was spent last year in their maneuver to get Deshaun Watson. Worth it.

Los Angeles Chargers: B+

Getting S Derwin James at No. 17 was a steal. GM Tom Telesco never stopped infusing talent into an already formidable defense, thought it did need to get much better against the run. LB Uchenna Nwosu, DT Justin Jones and LB Kyzir White may collectively elevate the Bolts to Super Bowl dark horse. Telesco is clearly confident QB Philip Rivers, 36, isn’t slowing down.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: B+

GM Jason Licht was aggressive, winding up with three second rounders, while wisely procuring toughness. First-round DT Vita Vea, second-round CBs M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis and third-round G Alex Cappa addressed needs while bringing attitude. Round 2 RB Ronald Jones is a home run waiting to happen as Doug Martin’s replacement.

Cincinnati Bengals: B

There may not be a Pro Bowler among C Billy Price, S Jessie Bates, DE Sam Hubbard, LB Malik Jefferson or RB Mark Walton. Yet all could quickly contribute for a franchise that generally doesn’t get enough recognition for drafting effectively.

Dallas Cowboys: B

Leighton Vander Esch dismissed rumors about his neck, though medical concerns have sadly become commonplace in Dallas’ linebacker room. Assuming he’s OK, he was a good decision in Round 1 rather than reaching for a receiver. Jerry Jones and Co. got leapfrogged in the second round by Philadelphia, which took TE Dallas Goedert … who might have been a fine replacement for Jason Witten. Still, the Cowboys got an excellent player 50th overall in Connor Williams, who will further strengthen what’s arguably the league’s top O-line. WR Michael Gallup (3rd round) and TE Dalton Schultz (4th) won’t make anyone forget Dez Bryant or Witten, but that shouldn’t be the expectation. Trading for versatile Tavon Austin was a low-risk investment at the cost of a sixth rounder. Fifth-round QB Mike White could give Cooper Rush a summer battle to be Dak Prescott’s backup.

Kansas City Chiefs: B

Low on sex appeal, and that’s fine. The buzz factor was burned up when this year’s first rounder was used to snag QB Patrick Mahomes in 2017. But DL Chris Jones will surely appreciate quality reinforcements Breeland Speaks and Derrick Nnadi.

Miami Dolphins: B

First-round DB Minkah Fitzpatrick should be a slam dunk, not to mention a potentially effective Gronk antidote. Shame TEs Mike Gesicki (2nd round), who can be a downfield weapon, and Durham Smythe (4th), a blocker, couldn’t be melded into one player, but they do eliminate a need. Third-round LB Jerome Baker and fourth-round RB Kalen Ballage have significant boom-or-bust quotients. The void left by DT Ndamukong Suh’s release remains.

Philadelphia Eagles: B-

Champs often draft for depth, and GM Howie Roseman traded down to get more. Stealing TE “Dallas” Goedert in Jerry Jones’ backyard was a nice touch. But getting Florida State pass rusher Josh Sweat in Round 4 might wind up being Roseman’s best pick.

Tennessee Titans: B-

They’re banking that quality trumps quantity given trades reduced them to a four-player bounty. Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry could herald the passing of the torch in the linebacking corps. They better. Unwarranted Tom Brady comparisons have been endlessly attached to sixth-round QB Luke Falk, who was naturally pick 199th (just like Brady in 2000). It would be a win if Falk merely pans out as a reliable backup to Marcus Mariota.

Detroit Lions: C+

Second rounder Kerryon Johnson will get the headlines, assuming he can break with recent tradition and hold up better than other highly drafted Lions tailbacks. Otherwise, new coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn were busy fortifying their lines, starting with first-round C Frank Ragnow.

Oakland Raiders: C+

Drafts are replete with boom-or-bust prospects. Jon Gruden’s return produced what looks like a boom-or-bust draft. Trading a third rounder to Pittsburgh for WR Martavis Bryant could be a coup … if Bryant’s head is screwed on soundly. Gruden clearly prioritized offensive tackles, correctly moving down in Round 1 for Kolton Miller before taking North Carolina A&T’s Brandon Parker in the third. Were either overdrafted in a thin tackle class? Stay tuned. LSU pass rusher Arden Key will enter the building with extensive personal issues, while Michigan DT Maurice Hurst is a medical risk. If it all pans out, Gruden should take a preliminary trip to Vegas. Otherwise, at least his $100 million line of credit can withstand a few hits.

Pittsburgh Steelers: C+

Terrell Edmunds was a reach in the first round, though the defense did need safety help. But this draft is more likely to be defined by Oklahoma State stars James Washington and Mason Rudolph, potential heir apparents to WR Antonio Brown and QB Ben Roethlisberger, respectively. GM Kevin Colbert traded up for Rudolph, apparently concerned the Bengals would take him. Rudolph and Washington were a deadly combo in Stillwater, and it’s rare to see a team import both ends of such a connection. If it works out, Edmunds will be relegated to bonus status.

San Francisco 49ers: C+

Taking Mike McGlinchey at No. 9 would have felt like a huge reach last week, but it became apparent closer to the draft that the Niners couldn’t wait to get him. Still, too high a price for a right tackle whose value might have been inflated in a weak draft at the position? Second rounder Dante Pettis adds immediate juice to the special teams, but at 6-1 and 186 pounds may be too slight to hold up at receiver. Third-round LB Fred Warner is additional insurance as the Niners prepare for the extended or permanent absence of 2017 first rounder Reuben Foster.

Cleveland Browns: C

This will be viewed as a seminal draft. But did GM John Dorsey properly leverage the bounty of assets left behind by analytics-driven predecessor Sashi Brown? Ultimately, it boils down to No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, whom Dorsey apparently couldn’t live without. If Mayfield lives up to his billing, the rest is gravy. But debate remains as to whether Darnold, Allen or even Rosen should have been the pick. Given RB Nick Chubb was taken in Round 2, also worth questioning if Saquon Barkley should have gotten the call at No. 1 with the guarantee that a quarterback — possibly even Mayfield — would have remained available at No. 4. Then there’s the notion that DE Bradley Chubb was a much better option with that fourth pick than CB Denzel Ward given how hard it is to collect quality pass rushers (even though Myles Garrett is already aboard), and the wealth of corner options in this draft. At the top of Round 2, Austin Corbett must prove he can play tackle at the pro level. If not, what does Dorsey do with one of his highly paid interior linemen? And even fourth-round WR Antonio Callaway, who’s talented but comes with drug and disciplinary issues, seems like a misadventure for a franchise that’s had so many issues with Josh Gordon.

Los Angeles Rams: C

Very hard to peg this. GM Les Snead gave up his first-round pick for WR Brandin Cooks, who’s currently under contract for one more year. Snead used his second rounder last year in a trade for WR Sammy Watkins, and that turned out to be a rental. In terms of players Snead actually drafted, fifth rounders Micah Kiser, an inside linebacker, and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, an edge player, may have the best chance to play now.

Carolina Panthers: C-

First-round WR DJ Moore is a nice player, but how much does he diversify an offense that already has so many short-area passing targets (Devin Funchess, Greg Olsen, Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel). Second-round CB Donte Jackson provides 4.3 speed. But at 5-11 and 178 pounds, won’t he be seriously overmatched by NFC South WRs like Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Mike Evans?

Indianapolis Colts: C-

GM Chris Ballard picked up three second rounders from the Jets (two in this draft) to move down three spots. He still got the player, Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson, who might have been pick had Indy stayed put. Perfect choice. However, those Round 2 picks … OLB Darius Leonard, G Braden Smith, pass rusher Kemoko Turay and DE Tyquan Lewis all felt like possible reaches for a roster that can’t afford more misses.

Minnesota Vikings: C-

Coach Mike Zimmer is surely happy to add a third first-found corner (Mike Hughes) to his secondary. Hughes will help in nickel packages and as a returner right away. Beyond that, hard to see many rookies here who will play immediately — unless second-round T Brian O’Neill proves he’s ahead of schedule from a strength standpoint.

Washington Redskins: C-

First-round DL Da’Ron Payne is made to order for the league’s worst defense, and fifth-round NT Tim Settle will also help. In second-round RB Derrius Guice, Washington picked a player who could add offensive rocket fuel … assuming concerns that apparently scared so many teams off prove unfounded. T Geron Christian and S Troy Apke are physically gifted but unlikely to contribute for some time.

New Orleans Saints: D

When they surrendered next year’s first rounder to jump from 27th to 14th in the first round, it appeared like a calculated gamble for QB Lamar Jackson. But New Orleans actually paid that hefty price for DE Marcus Davenport, a tantalizing prospect but one who may not be ready to advance the all-or-nothing Super Bowl run this move clearly signals. Third-round WR Tre’quan Smith could offset the loss of Willie Snead but also looks no better than a No. 4 wideout option if Cam Meredith is healthy.

Seattle Seahawks: D

Let’s begin by saying that GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll have built a powerhouse while making draft “graders” look silly. Yet still … RB Rashaad Penny seemed like a first-round reach on merit and especially because Seattle already had several backs on the roster. No qualms with USC DE Rasheem Green in Round 3, but the decision to virtually ignore the corner and offensive line (again) crops is puzzling. (Seattle did take OT Jamarco Jones in Round 5 but after picking a punter earlier in the round.)

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40 things we learned from the 2018 NFL draft

ARLINGTON, Texas — Trades, slides and milestones — no one could have predicted this. The 2018 NFL draft was eye-opening in several respects, and here’s a rundown of the big takeaways you need to know.

1. We shouldn’t have been surprised, but even the NFL draft is bigger in Texas. And it was classic Jerry Jones: flashy and made for television. This was the first draft held inside an NFL stadium, and the atmosphere — especially during the first round — was fantastic.

2. The league will decide at the owners meetings in May where the next two drafts will be staged. What we’ve learned from the past two years in Philly (on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and North Texas (at AT&T Stadium) is that the host city has the opportunity to show off its local flavor. We’d love to see the event held at the Pro Football Hall of Fame or on a snowy April day in Denver.

3. The trolling of Cowboys fans was one of the most entertaining aspects of this draft — karma that was due after Drew Pearson’s epic rant a year ago in Philadelphia. Among those who took shots at Cowboys Nation over the weekend were former NFL players like David Akers, Jerry Kramer, Justin Tuck, Merton Hanks, Michael Vick and even Chris Canty — a former Dallas draft pick who showed off the Super Bowl ring he won with the Giants.

4. As if the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry needed more juice, Philadelphia traded ahead of Dallas in the second round to take TE Dallas Goedert — yes, his name is Dallas — just hours after news leaked that Jason Witten would retire.

5. The one thing that would have made the appearance of Akers, a longtime Eagles kicker, even better as he announced the Goedert pick is if he’d done it while wearing a full Mummers costume, a la C Jason Kelce at the Philadelphia Super Bowl parade.

6. Sometimes, deleting your old tweets isn’t enough. As QB Josh Allen learned, the Internet is forever.

7. But the biggest lesson from Allen’s Twitter fiasco — when racially offensive posts he wrote while in high school surfaced 24 hours before the draft — isn’t just about being careful on social media. It’s that tweeting racial slurs, even in reference to song lyrics or in what you think is a joke between friends, is never OK. Teams and media are watching.

8. It’s notable that the only team to speak to Allen directly about the tweets Thursday (rather than just calling his agent) was the Buffalo Bills, who traded up to take him at No. 7.

9. Allen handled questions about the tweets well. Now he has to answer to his new teammates. But here’s the silver lining: At least no one was asking about his 56% completion percentage at Wyoming.

10. Perhaps the luckiest team in the first round was the New York Jets, who made their bold move to trade up from No. 6 to No. 3 weeks ago without any certainty about which quarterbacks would be available. Maybe the Jets did love Baker Mayfield, but they wound up with Sam Darnold — who was the closest thing to a consensus top quarterback in this class.

11. Still, the most intriguing quarterback move of the first round might have been the last one, with the Ravens trading back in to take Lamar Jackson at No. 32. Hell of a way for Ozzie Newsome to put an exclamation point on his final Round 1 selection.

12. Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, took 12 players in his final draft, a haul that included Jackson, two tight ends, two wide receivers, three offensive linemen, two defensive backs, one linebacker and one defensive end.

13. Adding Jackson means the Ravens now have two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks on the roster. And Joe Flacco. (The Ravens signed Robert Griffin III earlier this year.)

14. Jackson’s arrival surely seems likely to hasten the end of Flacco’s tenure in Baltimore. Flacco, whose contract runs through 2021, has no guaranteed money left in his contract after 2018, and the team has a potential out after 2019.

15. More Jackson intrigue … consider the Ravens coaching staff, with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (he coached Michael Vick in Philadelphia) and Greg Roman (he designed plays for Colin Kaepernick in 2012).

16. Will there be another changing of the guard in the AFC North aside from Baltimore? The Steelers look like they’ve finally drafted a player capable of eventually replacing Ben Roethlisberger in third-round pick Mason Rudolph.

17. Leighton Vander Esch had the swankiest ride to visit his new team. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones sent his helicopter to pick up the first-round linebacker Friday and fly him to The Star in Frisco for his introductory press conference.

18. But Vander Esch’s ride wasn’t even the best helicopter story of the draft. That belongs to Bradley Chubb’s older brother Brandon, a linebacker with the Detroit Lions, who practiced in Michigan on Thursday morning, then took a flight to Dallas, where he hired a chopper to fly him to AT&T Stadium. He landed 25 minutes before the draft opened.

19. The underrated move of Round 1 came when the Steelers traded troubled WR Martavis Bryant to Oakland. That gives the Raiders a new receiving corps of Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson and Bryant just in time to compete in a division that no longer includes CBs Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.

20. When Raiders coach Jon Gruden said at the combine that he wanted to take the game back to 1998, we thought he was talking about the pre-analytics era. But with the addition of Bryant, who has served multiple marijuana-related suspensions, and former LSU pass rusher Arden Key, who reportedly went to rehab for marijuana last year, Gruden is taking the Silver & Black back to its bad boy roots.

21. These are high-risk, high-reward moves for the Raiders, who need to surround franchise players Derek Carr and Khalil Mack with better talent.

22. Maybe this sends a wake-up call to Baton Rouge, given LSU’s two best players in this draft, Key and RB Derrius Guice, both plummeted because of off-field concerns.

23. The Browns took RB Nick Chubb early in the second round. They essentially spent $17 million on the pick when they acquired it along with QB Brock Osweiler last year. Osweiler didn’t make Cleveland’s roster, and the Browns paid more than $15 million of his salary this year while he played for the Broncos.

24. Browns GM John Dorsey isn’t afraid of taking players with serious character flags. In his first draft with Cleveland, Dorsey picked Florida WR Antonio Callaway, who reportedly failed a drug test at the combine, was suspended in 2017 for alleged involvement in credit card fraud and was investigated in 2016 for sexual battery. (Dorsey, while the general manager of the Chiefs, in 2016 drafted Tyreek Hill, who pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge.)

25. Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck has to love that two of general manager Chris Ballard’s first three picks were guards, including first rounder Quenton Nelson. It’s a shame that previous GM Ryan Grigson didn’t do this years ago, before Luck missed a season and a half with injuries.

26. One-handed LB Shaquem Griffin was already going to be the feel-good story of the draft, but somehow it got even better when it was the Seattle Seahawks who picked him. Griffin now reunites with twin Shaquill, a cornerback drafted by the Seahawks last year.

27. Look for Griffin to contribute immediately as a special teamer with the potential to become a special player as an outside linebacker lined up next to Bobby Wagner in Pete Carroll’s defense.

28. It’s easy to love the Patriots’ pick of Georgia RB Sony Michel at No. 31, especially after they lost Dion Lewis in free agency. But it totally didn’t fit Bill Belichick’s style to use that high of a pick on a tailback. The last time the Patriots used a first rounder on a running back? Laurence Maroney in 2006.

29. Clear message from John Elway in Denver that the Broncos are building around Case Keenum. Elway passed on Allen and fellow QB Josh Rosen, taking offensive players (WR Courtland Sutton and RB Royce Freeman) with his first two picks on Friday.

30. The Texans had to wait until the third round to make their first pick, and it was an interesting one: Stanford S Justin Reid — you know, the younger brother of fellow S Eric Reid, who is currently unemployed after protesting during the national anthem for the past two seasons. Houston owner Bob McNair has been one of the most ardent supporters of President Trump.

31. Don’t look now, but the Chargers are quietly assembling a seriously dangerous defensive lineup after drafting S Derwin James in the first round. He seems like a perfect fit for a Gus Bradley scheme and could fill the Kam Chancellor role in the secondary. His oversized personality should play well in the Los Angeles market as well.

32. How much did Orlando Brown Jr.’s disastrous combine cost him? The Oklahoma tackle, once seen as a potential first-round pick, fell to the third round, where he was drafted by the Ravens. Brown likely isn’t concerned about his slide now, not after he landed in Baltimore, where his father, Orlando “Zeus” Brown, once starred. “I’m coming home,” Brown Jr., tweeted Friday night.

33. It was always a long shot that Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie would draft his son, fellow Tennessee Volunteer Kahlil McKenzie. But having him land with AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs (with pick No. 198) should make for some awkward family dinners.

34. Through a series of trades, the Patriots flipped the second-round pick (No. 43) they received from the 49ers in the Jimmy Garoppolo deal into four more selection. New England made four total trades during the second day of the draft. It was impressive maneuvering by Belichick, though it makes it tough to make a true assessment of what the Patriots got in return for Garoppolo.

35. The NFL should keep making the gimmicks for the third-day selections even more ridiculous — if only to further infuriate NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock. After picks were delivered this year via parrot (in Tampa), by a mascot in a Speedo at a Mexican restaurant (in Denver) and by fans on a flatbed Ford in Winslow, Ariz., (for the Cardinals), may we suggest that at least one 2019 pick be delivered by Challenger the bald eagle, while dive bombing the NFL Network set.

36. What a time to be a specialist. Four punters were drafted in the span of 24 picks in the fifth round. This draft also saw two kickers selected, and even one long snapper.

37. Interesting move late in the draft, with the Rams sending former first-round pick Tavon Austin to the receiver-needy Cowboys for a sixth rounder. Don’t expect Austin to replace Dez Bryant. Instead, Jason Garrett and his staff need to find a way to highlight Austin’s speed and versatility, perhaps as a gadget player and hybrid receiver-running back.

38. Dorsey could quality for a job in the CIA after the way he kept his love of Mayfield under wraps until the final hours before the draft, with most analysts and teams assuming Cleveland would choose Darnold or Allen. That mystery, fed by Dorsey’s silence, made this one of the most anticipated first rounds in years.

39. Mayfield fueled his stellar college career by being the underdog after walking on at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Now he’ll have to find a new motivation, knowing that the Browns wanted him more than any other player.

40. The Patriots must not be worried about 40-year-old QB Tom Brady’s plans — in 2018 or beyond. At least that’s the takeaway after Belichick passed on rookie quarterbacks until finally taking Danny Etling with the first pick in the seventh round.

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Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones

NFL draft 2018 tracker: Updates on picks from Rounds 4-7

A look at every pick in Rounds 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the 2018 NFL draft.

More: NFL draft 2018 tracker: Pick-by-pick analysis of every selection in Round 1

More: NFL draft 2018 tracker: Pick-by-pick analysis of every selection in Rounds 2 and 3

Round 4

101. Panthers (from Browns via Packers) — Ian Thomas, TE, Indiana

102. Vikings (from Giants via Buccaneers) — Jalyn Holmes, DE, Ohio State

103. Texans — Keke Coutee, WR, Texas Tech

104. Colts — Nyheim Hines, RB, North Carolina State

105. Browns (from Bears via Patriots) — Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

106. Broncos — Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa

107. Jets — Christopher Herndon, TE, Miami (Fla.)

108. Giants — Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond

109. Redskins (from 49ers via Broncos) — Troy Apke, S, Penn State

110. Raiders — Nick Nelson, CB, Wisconsin

111. Rams (from Dolphins) — Brian Allen, C, Michigan State

112. Bengals — Mark Walton, RB, Miami (Fla.)

113. Broncos (from Redskins) — DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Penn State

114. Lions (from Packers via Browns and Patriots) — Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama

115. Bears (from Cardinals) — Joel Iyiegbuniwe, LB, Western Kentucky

116. Cowboys — Dorance Armstrong Jr., DE, Kansas

117. Buccaneers (from Lions via Patriots) — Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh

118. Ravens — Anthony Averett, CB, Alabama

119. Chargers — Kyzir White, LB/S, West Virginia

120. Seahawks — Will Dissly, TE, Washington

121. Bills — Taron Johnson, CB, Weber State

122. Ravens (from Chiefs) — Kenny Young, LB, UCLA

123. Dolphins (from Browns via Panthers) — Durham Smythe, TE, Notre Dame

124. Chiefs (from Rams) — Armani Watts, S, Texas A&M

125. Eagles (from Titans via Ravens) — Avonte Maddox, CB, Pittsburgh

126. Falcons — Ito Smith, RB, Southern Miss

127. Saints — Rick Leonard, OT, Florida State

128. 49ers (from Steelers) — Kentavius Street, DE, North Carolina State

129. Jaguars — Will Richardson, OT, North Carolina State

130. Eagles (from Vikings) — Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State

131. Dolphins (from Patriots through Eagles) — Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State

132. Ravens (from Eagles) — Jaleel Scott, WR, New Mexico State

133. Packers (Compensatory) — J’Mon Moore, WR, Missouri

134. Cardinals (Compensatory) — Chase Edmonds, RB, Fordham

135. Rams (from Giants–Compensatory) — John Franklin, DE, Stephen F. Austin

136. Panthers (from Patriots via Rams–Compensatory) — Marquis Haynes, DE/LB, Mississippi

137. Cowboys (Compensatory) — Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford

Round 5

138. Packers (from Browns) — Cole Madison, OT, Washington State

139. Giants — RJ McIntosh, DT, Miami (Fla.)

140. Raiders (from Colts) — Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan

141. Seahawks (from Texans) — Shaquem Griffin, LB, Central Florida

142. 49ers (from Broncos via Redskins) — D.J. Reed, CB, Kansas State

143. Patriots (from Jets via 49ers ) — Ja’whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue

144. Buccaneers — Justin Watson, WR, Penn

145. Bears — Bilal Nichols, DT, Delaware

146. Seahawks (from Raiders) — Tre Flowers, S, Oklahoma State

147. Packers (from Dolphins via Saints) — Micah Kiser, LB, Virginia

148. Steelers (from 49ers) — Marcus Allen, S, Penn State

149. Seahawks (from Redskins via Broncos) — Michael Dickson, P, Texas

150. Browns (from Packers) — Genard Avery, LB, Browns

151. Bengals — Davontae Harris, CB, Illinois State

152. Titans (from Cardinals via Raiders and Ravens) — Dane Cruikshank, S, Arizona

153. Lions — Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon

154. Bills (from Ravens) — Siran Neal, S, Jacksonville State

155. Chargers — Scott Quessenberry, C, UCLA

156. Broncos (from Seahawks via Eagles and Seahawks) — Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin

157. Vikings (from Cowboys via Jets) — Tyler Conklin, TE, Central Michigan

158. Bengals (from Bills) — Andrew Brown, DT, Virginia

159. Colts (from Chiefs through Browns, Patriots and Raiders) — Daurice Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa

160. Rams (from Rams via Broncos) — Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB, Oklahoma

161. Panthers — Jermaine Carter, LB, Maryland

162. Ravens (from Titans) — Jordan Lasley, WR, UCLA

163. Redskins (from Falcons via Broncos) — Tim Settle, DT, Virginia Tech

164. Saints — Natrell Jamerson, S, Wisconsin

165. Steelers — Jaylen Samuels, RB, North Carolina State

166. Bills (from Jaguars) — Wyatt Teller, G, Virginia Tech

167. Vikings (from Vikings to Jets) — Daniel Carlson, K, Auburn

168. Seahawks (from Patriots) — Jamarco Jones, OT, Ohio State

169. Colts (from Eagles) — Jordan Wilkins, RB, Mississippi

170. Bengals (Compensatory) — Darius Phillips, CB, Western Michigan

171. Cowboys (Compensatory) — Mike White, QB, Western Kentucky

172. Packers (Compensatory) — J.K. Scott, P, Alabama

173. Raiders (from Cowboys – Compensatory) — Johnny Townsend, P, Florida

174. Packers (Compensatory) — Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, South Florida

Round 6

175. Browns — Damion Ratley, WR, Texas A&M

176. Rams (from Giants) — John Kelly, RB, Tennessee

177. Texans — Duke Ejiofor, DE, Wake Forest

178. Patriots (from Colts via Browns) — Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State

179. Jets — Parry Nickerson, CB, Tulane

180. Jets (from Buccaneers via Vikings) — Foley Fatukasi, DT, Connecticut

181. Bears — Kylie Fitts, DE, Utah

182. Cardinals (from Broncos) — Christian Campbell, CB, Penn State

183. Broncos (from Dolphins via Rams) — Sam Jones, G, Arizona State

184. 49ers — Marcell Harris, S, Florida

185. Colts (from Raiders) — Deon Cain, WR, Clemson

186. Seahawks (from Packers) — Jacob Martin, DE, Temple

187. Bills (from Bengals) — Ray-Ray McCloud, WR, Clemson

188. Browns (from Redskins) — Simeon Thomas, CB, Louisiana

189. Saints (from Cardinals) — Kamrin Moore, CB, Boston College

190. Ravens — DeShon Elliott, S, Texas

191. Chargers — Dylan Cantrell, WR, Texas Tech

192. Rams (from Seahawks via Raiders and Cowboys) — Jamil Demby, G, Maine

193. Cowboys — Chris Covington, LB, Indiana

194. Falcons (from Lions via Rams) — Russell Gage, WR, LSU

195. Rams (from Bills) — Sebastian Joseph, DT, Rutgers

196. Chiefs — Tremon Smith, CB, Central Arkansas

197. Redskins (from Panthers via Rams) — Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, Alabama

198. Chiefs (from Rams via Patriots) — Kahlil McKenzie, DT, Tennessee

199. Titans — Luke Falk, QB, Tennessee

200. Falcons — Foye Oluokun, LB, Yale

201. Saints — Boston Scott, RB, Louisiana Tech

202. Buccaneers (from Steelers) — Jack Cichy, LB, Wisconsin

203. Jaguars — Tanner Lee, QB, Nebraska

204. Jets (from Vikings) — Trenton Cannon, RB, Virginia State

205. Rams (from Patriots via Browns and Redskins) — Trevon Young, LB, Rams

206. Eagles — Matt Pryor, OT, TCU

207. Packers (Compensatory) — Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame

208. Cowboys (Compensatory) — Cedrick Wilson, WR, Boise State

209. Dolphins (from Rams through Chiefs (Compensatory)) — Cornell Armstrong, DB, Southern Miss

210. Patriots (from Raiders – Compensatory) — Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (Fla.)

211. Texans (Compensatory) — Jordan Thomas, TE, Mississippi State

212. Ravens (from Raiders – Compensatory) — Greg Senat, OT, Wagner

213. Vikings (Compensatory) — Colby Gossett, G, Appalachian State

214. Texans (Compensatory) — Peter Kalambayi, DE/LB, Stanford

215. Ravens (from Ravens via Titans (Compensatory)) — Bradley Bozeman, C, Alabama

216. Raiders (Compensatory) — Azeem Victor, LB, Washington

217. Broncos (from Raiders via Rams (Compensatory)) — Keishawn Bierria, LB, Washington

218. Vikings (Compensatory) — Ade Aruana, DE, Tulane

Round 7

219. Patriots (from Browns) — Danny Etling, QB, LSU

220. Seahawks (from Giants via Steelers) — Alex McGough, QB, Florida International

221. Colts — Matthew Adams, LB, Houston

222. Texans — Jermaine Kelly, DB, San Jose State

223. 49ers (from Dolphins through Buccaneers) — Julian Taylor, DT, Temple

224. Bears — Javon Wims, WR, Georgia

225. Vikings (from Broncos via Vikings and Jets) — Devante Downs, LB, California

226. Broncos (from Jets via Seahawks) — David Williams, RB, Arkansas

227. Dolphins (from 49ers) — Quentin Poling, LB, Ohio

228. Raiders — Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State

229. Dolphins — Jason Sanders, K, New Mexico

230. Jaguars (from Bengals) — Leon Jacobs, LB, Wisconsin

231. Rams (from Redskins) — Travin Howard, LB, TCU

232. Packers — James Looney, DE, Cal

233. Eagles (from Cardinals via Chiefs and Patriots) — Jordan Mailata, OT, South Sydnet Rabbitohs (rugby)

234. Panthers (from Chargers through Bills) — Andre Smith, LB, North Carolina

235. Colts (from Seahawks via Jets) — Zaire Franklin, LB, Syracuse

236. Cowboys — Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama

237. Lions — Nick Bawden, RB, San Diego State

238. Ravens — Zach Seiler, DE, Ferris State

239. Packers (from Bills) — Hunter Bradley, LS, Mississippi State

240. 49ers (from Chiefs) — Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State

241. Redskins (from Rams) — Greg Stroman, CB, Virginia Tech

242. Panthers — Kendrick Norton, DT, Miami

243. Patriots (from Titans via Chiefs) — Kelon Crossen, DB, Western Carolina

244. Rams (from Falcons) — Justin Lawler, DE, SMU

245. Saints — Will Clapp, C, LSU

246. Steelers — Joshua Frazier, DT, Alabama

247. Jaguars — Logan Cooke, P, Mississippi State

248. Packers (from Vikings via Seahawks) — Kendall Donnerson, LB, Southeast Missouri

249. Bengals (from Patriots) — Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo

250. Patriots (from Eagles through Seahawks and Eagles) — Ryan Izzo, TE, Florida State

251. Chargers (Compensatory) — Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

252. Bengals (Compensatory) — Rod Taylor, G, Mississippi

253. Bengals (Compensatory) — Auden Tate, WR, Florida State

254. Cardinals (Compensatory) — Korey Cunningham, OT, Cincinnati

255. Bills (from Buccaneers (Compensatory)) — Austin Proehl, WR

256. Redskins (from Falcons via Rams (Compensatory)) — Trey Quinn, WR, SMU

Round 2 NFL mock draft: Which QB will Patriots target as Tom Brady’s successor?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —    With the 2018 NFL draft’s first round complete, it’s time to look ahead to the next one. Round 2 kicks off Friday evening in Arlington, Texas, so here’s one more mock draft to chew on as we look for homes for the top remaining prospects:

33. Browns — Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan: Maybe it’s not optimal to bring a Wolverine to Ohio, but Cleveland did take Jabrill Peppers last year. Hurst would be another nice addition to this blossoming defense, a gap-shooting interior presence who can capitalize on the attention Myles Garrett commands off the edge.

34. Giants — Will Hernandez, G, Texas El-Paso: Here’s a beloved “hog molly” for GM Dave Gettleman. New York now has Saquon Barkley to ignite a dormant ground game, but a lack of talent in the backfield wasn’t the only reason for those struggles. Hernandez is a mauler who will blast open lanes for Barkley and also take good care of Eli Manning.

35. Browns (from Texans) — Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon: A 6-5, 309-pounder to take over for departed Joe Thomas as well as becoming the new man on Baker Mayfield’s blind side. Cleveland’s line is solid elsewhere, a good situation for Crosby, who could expect help from tight ends and chipping backs as he acclimates.

36. Colts — Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: He would replace Frank Gore, surely love the opportunity to run behind Quenton Nelson, bring needed giddyup and power to a 22nd-ranked ground attack and reduce some of the load on Andrew Luck’s surgically rebuilt wing.

37. Colts (from Jets) — Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: He’s a different type of corner than departed Vontae Davis, but still addresses a major problem area for an evolving defense. Jackson and S Malik Hooker, last year’s first rounder, would give Indianapolis a pair of accomplished ball hawks.

38. Buccaneers — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: He’s a thumper who will force even NFL defensive backs to make “business decisions” when he breaks into opposing secondaries. Like ex-teammate Leonard Fournette, Guice should display more effectiveness as a receiver than he could in college.

39. Bears — Harrison Phillips, DL, Stanford: His 42 reps on the bench made him the 2018 combine champ for all positions. At 6-4, 307 pounds, he should be fine to play five-technique on a three-man Chicago front that needs to give Akiem Hicks more help. Harrison’s wrestling background — he was a three-time Nebraska state champion in high school — and non-stop effort (103 tackles last year!) will serve him well.

40. Broncos — Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State: He racked up eye-popping numbers for his position in 2016 (92 catches for 1,293 yards and 11 TDs). He could be a perfect alternative for new QB Case Keenum while diversifying a passing attack that’s been too reliant on WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

41. Raiders — Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado: Oakland definitely needs another body for a pass defense that ranked 26th even with Khalil Mack applying pressure up front. How athletic is Oliver? A former decathlete, he brings a good blend of speed and strength to the position in a division with a variety of effective receivers.

42. Dolphins — Nathan Shepherd, DT, Fort Hays State: After knocking around Canada and Division II, he looked ready for the big stage given the way he competed at the Senior Bowl. In this scenario, that stage would come with an added level of scrutiny for a defense that needs to replace Ndamukong Suh.

43. Patriots (from 49ers) — Harold Landry, DE/OLB, Boston College: If only New England had had a player who could consistently apply pressure in Super Bowl LII. Landry, who led the nation with 16½ sacks when he was fully healthy 2016, could be the answer.

44. Redskins — James Daniels, C, Iowa: Another accomplished Hawkeye technician, he’d offer a nice boost to a line that lost C Spencer Long to the Jets in free agency and could also use help at guard.

45. Packers — Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: His 4.47 speed could soften the loss of Jordy Nelson, and his ability to thrive from the slot could allow the Pack to move on from Randall Cobb a year from now. Kirk’s six punt returns for TDs with the Aggies also foreshadow his game-breaking skills on special teams.

46. Bengals — Connor Williams, OL, Texas: Yes, Cincinnati took Billy Price in Round 1. But if any team should realize the folly of neglecting its front five, it should be this one. If Williams proves he can’t handle the rigors of playing right tackle, he’d still be an upgrade at right guard.

47. Cardinals — Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis: A shiny new weapon for Josh Rosen (or Sam Bradford) in the short run and, yes, perhaps an acceptable replacement for Larry Fitzgerald if age ever runs him down. Miller racked up nearly 200 catches and 2,900 yards over the past two seasons.

48. Chargers — B.J. Hill, DT, North Carolina State: The Bolts were gashed for a league-worst 4.9 yards per rush last season, and no AFC team surrendered more real estate on the ground. Hill helps plug a hole further exposed by the four-game suspension to DT Corey Liuget.

49. Colts (from Seahawks via Jets) — James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State: He had at least 70 receptions, 1,300 yards and 10 TDs each of the past two seasons in the Cowboys’ high-octane attack. Washington could be a nice complement to speedy T.Y. Hilton while giving Luck a weapon who can line up inside or out.

50. Cowboys — Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: If he seems like a basketball player on grass … well, he is. A former member of the Mustangs’ hoops squad, the 6-3, 218-pounder has excellent hands and the size to be an immediate red zone factor. The next Dez Bryant? Probably not, but he’d restore a nice power forward component to Dallas’ passing game.

51. Lions — Justin Reid, S, Stanford: New Detroit coach Matt Patricia has become accustomed to operating with a deep, diverse group of safeties. Reid would upgrade this secondary, likely to quickly earn a starting role alongside Glover Quin.

52. Eagles (from Ravens) — Austin Corbett, OL, Nevada: At minimum, he could supplant Stefen Wisniewski at left guard. But maybe Corbett also proves he’s actually got the chops to play left tackle, his college position, giving Philly an insurance policy behind aging Jason Peters.

53. Buccaneers (from Bills) — Jessie Bates, S, Wake Forest: At some point, the Bucs have to address the back end of their league-worst pass defense. Bates’ range makes him a good candidate to break up a few more passes.

54. Chiefs — Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama: Kansas City is finally on the clock. This defense is woefully thin at safety, especially when Eric Berry is unavailable, which was the case in 2017. Harrison is a solid enforcer and could probably hold his own in coverage in a division where the only powerful arm at quarterback is on his team.

55. Panthers — Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn: Carolina is in desperate need of reinforcements at corner. Davis’ size (6-1, 206) makes him better suited to take on super-sized NFC South receivers like Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Mike Evans.

56. Buccaneers (from Rams via Bills) — Donte Jackson, CB, LSU: Did we mention that atrocious Tampa pass defense? Jackson isn’t big (5-11, 178) but has excellent speed. So in some ways, pretty much Brent Grimes, just 12 years younger.

57. Titans — Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State: An exceptional athlete (41½-inch vertical, 4.54-second 40 at the combine), he’d add another dimension to Tennessee’s passing attack and could take over the primary role in a year if Delanie Walker, soon to be 34, isn’t re-signed beyond 2018.

58. Falcons — Rasheem Green, DL, Southern California: He’ll need to partake of some of that southern cooking to add bulk to his 6-4, 275-pound frame, but we think he can play on the line next to Grady Jarrett and possibly add more consistent pressure than departed Adrian Clayborn did.

59. 49ers (from Saints) — Braden Smith, G, Auburn: San Francisco took Mike McGlinchey in Round 1 but would be wise to get one more starting-caliber blocker in front of $137.5 million man Jimmy Garoppolo

60. Steelers — Ronald Jones, RB, Southern California: He’s got speed to burn and would allow Pittsburgh to manage Le’Veon Bell’s mileage, given that the all-pro is prone to late-season breakdowns. And, in the not-so-unlikely scenario that Bell walks next year, Jones and James Conner could form a nice thunder and lightning platoon.

61. Jaguars — D.J. Chark, WR, LSU: If he catches 50 balls, great. His real value is 4.34 speed that can further open up Jacksonville’s top-ranked run game while also creating room for a pedestrian group of receivers.

62. Vikings — Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh: At 6-7, 297 pounds and with a hoops background, he’s got many of the attributes NFL teams want in a tackle. If O’Neill proves he’s got the strength to play immediately, he could push Mike Remmers to guard.

63. Patriots — Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State: He’s big (6-5, 235), smart, was highly productive and efficient in the Cowboys’ spread offense and does a nice job attacking deep. Also seems highly coachable and willing to take the back seat that he’d surely find himself occupying for another year or two behind Tom Brady.

64. Browns (from Eagles) — Dante Pettis, WR, Washington: He established a NCAA record with nine career punt returns for TDs, and his real value as a rookie would be his ability to amp a special teams unit that used to feed off Josh Cribbs. But the 6-1, 186-pound Pettis is also a very capable and polished receiver and would offer valuable depth given Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman have proven unreliable for different reasons.

Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

NFL draft 2018 tracker: Pick-by-pick analysis of every selection in Round 1

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)  —   Analysis of all 32 first-round picks of the 2018 NFL draft, which kicked off Thursday night.

1. Browns — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: The reigning Heisman Trophy winner becomes the 11th quarterback Cleveland has drafted since its 1999 rebirth, and the fifth in the first round. But Mayfield, who walked on at Texas Tech and did the same in Norman, Okla., is the first passer the Browns have taken first overall since Tim Couch in 1999. The expectation is that he’ll obviously be the long-awaited savior for a franchise that’s never reached the Super Bowl and almost surely set itself back in recent years by passing on opportunities to take Carson Wentz in 2016 and Deshaun Watson last April. At 6-1, 215 pounds, Mayfield is built similarly to Tyrod Taylor, who was acquired earlier this offseason by Cleveland and tabbed by coach Hue Jackson as the starter. In the last two years, Mayfield completed more than 70% of his passes, throwing for 8,592 yards, 83 TDs and 14 INTs. If that kind of accuracy and production translates to the pros, Taylor is in for an instant battle. Mayfield’s height and brashness had been perceived knocks against him, but his fiery persona and leadership have also convinced some teams he could be as good as vertically challenged passers like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. And let’s remember what Mayfield said about the Browns at the scouting combine: “If anybody’s going to turn that franchise around, it’s going to me.

2. Giants — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Widely regarded as the top player in this draft, he aced the scouting combine (4.4 40, 29 reps on bench, 41-inch vert) and posted 3,801 yards from scrimmage and 82 catches in his last two years for the Nittany Lions. Barkley is a bigger, faster version of Adrian Peterson coming out of college and instantly legitimizes a poor Giants ground game. He forms a dangerous trio with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham and should help instantly return the franchise to contending status for the short run and long term. An every-down player with great speed, instincts and intangibles, there’s no reason to expect Barkely won’t make the same kind of rookie splash that Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette have had in recent years.

3. Jets (from Colts) — Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: At the price of three second-round picks to move up three spots, New York goes back to the Trojan well for the second time in nine years after Mark Sanchez flamed out after an early flurry. Darnold seemed like a no-brainer at No. 1 overall before the 2017 season began, but 22 turnovers last year apparently depressed his stock just a touch. But it must be noted his supporting cast was better in 2016 (including JuJu Smith-Schuster). The 6-3, 221-pounder threw for 57 TDs in two years as USC’s starter and excels making plays on the move, the kind of improvisation he may have to call on frequently as the Jets continue to build the O-line and arsenal around Darnold. If New York decides not to throw its highest-drafted QB since Joe Namath (1965) into the fire right away, 38-year-old Josh McCown remains as an option and embraces the role of mentor toward young passers.

4. Browns (from Texans) — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: Cleveland never sufficiently replaced Joe Haden but adds this draft’s best pure cover corner to its ascendant defense. Despite his small frame (5-11, 183), Ward is a ferocious hitter who can capably cover outside or in the slot. Should be fun watching him square off against Antonio Brown twice per season. The Buckeyes have now produced four first-round corners since 2016 (Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple).

5. Broncos — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: He’s referred to himself as a combination of Khalil Mack and new teammate Von Miller, who co-signed Chubb’s comparison. At 6-4, 269 pounds, Chubb may have to become accustomed to standing up in Denver’s 3-4 defense but will nonetheless became part of a fearsome pass rush which already includes Miller and Shane Ray. And Chubb isn’t a one-trick pony, priding himself on relentless effort and his ability to also stop the run. Could be fun if he starts swiping the hand towels from Philip Rivers, Derek Carr and Patrick Mahomes.

6. Colts (from Jets) — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Is there a better way to support Andrew Luck’s recovery than by providing a protector who will clean up the pocket (Indianapolis allowed a league-worst 56 sacks in 2017) while adding a serious boost to a ground game in need of major help? Nelson becomes only the third pure guard picked in the top 10 in the past two decades, an indication of what a special player he is despite his often devalued position.

7. Bills (from Buccaneers) — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Buffalo GM Brandon Beane completes his long-expected move up the board after getting up to the 12th spot earlier this offseason. Allen finds a fairly soft landing after a series of offensive tweets from his youth started his draft day off in less-than-ideal fashion. Allen has as strong an arm as any prospect in recent memory and underrated athleticism at 6-5 and 237 pounds that will make him a red-zone weapon on the ground. But his 56.2% completion rate in college is a concern, and he never really dominated largely average competition, posting just two 300-yard games in three seasons for the Cowboys. If Allen proves he’s not NFL-ready, which is the expectation, AJ McCarron was signed in free agency to serve as a bridge.

8. Bears — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: At 6-1, 236 pounds, he might seem a touch undersized to play inside in Chicago’s 3-4 scheme. But Smith will cover a lot of ground and provide leadership to an underrated defense that finished 10th overall last year. He’s also very effective as a blitzer, especially on delays, and posted 6½ sacks last season. Smith reunites with former Bulldogs teammate Leonard Floyd as part of a nucleus that could help this club be a playoff dark horse in 2018.

9. 49ers — Mike McGlinchey, T, Notre Dame: That’s two Irish blockers off the board in the last four picks. McGlinchey should immediately plug into the right side opposite Joe Staley, giving new franchise QB Jimmy Garoppolo a very nice tackle tandem for the foreseeable future. McGlinchey should also provide a spark to a Niners ground game that ranked just 21st in 2017.

10. Cardinals (from Raiders) — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Perhaps the most pro-ready passer coming out in 2018, Rosen is nearly flawless mechanically in terms of his delivery and footwork honed as an accomplished tennis player. He reads the field well at all levels and is highly intelligent. He did suffer two concussions last year and won’t make plays with his legs. Still, this is a coup for Arizona, which has Sam Bradford on a one-year deal but, before Thursday, didn’t have an obvious succession plan in the wake of Carson Palmer’s retirement. Now Rosen joins a loaded quarterback division that includes Garoppolo, Russell Wilson and Jared Goff.

11. Dolphins — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: A highly versatile defender, he can play safety, dime linebacker, slot corner and brings a reputation as a strong leader. It will be interesting to see if Miami starts Fitzpatrick at corner to see if he can thrive there given the struggles of Cordrea Tankersley and Xavien Howard in 2017. Fitzpatrick should be able to earn his stripes in practice against Danny Amendola before matching up against the likes of Julian Edelman.

12. Buccaneers (from Bengals via Bills) — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: Another very nice piece joins a defense that ranked dead last in 2017. Vea will pair with perennial Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy to give Tampa Bay a monstrous duo inside between new rush ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry. At 6-4 and 347 pounds, Vea has scary athleticism for a man his size — he was a running back in high school — but will have to prove he can be a factor on passing downs after posting just 9½ sacks in three seasons with the Huskies.

13. Redskins — Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Makes sense for Washington, which gave up more rushing yards than any other team last season. Payne reunites with Jonathan Allen, the ‘Skins’ first-round pick last year on a three-man front long on talent but not experience. Payne isn’t nearly as accomplished a pass rusher as Allen but is extremely strong — he can bench press 500 pounds — and should shut down interior run lanes, command double teams and get enough push on the pocket to flush quarterbacks outside.

14. Saints (from Packers) — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: New Orleans makes a huge jump up from No. 27 to get the man perceived as the draft’s second-best defensive end after Chubb in a year weak on edge talent. A very long player at 6-6, 264 pounds, Davenport is raw but collected 8½ sacks and 17½ tackles for loss last season. He shouldn’t see many, if any, double teams lining up opposite all-pro Cam Jordan. The question now is whether Davenport can put the NFC South champs over the top in 2018. He should certainly help in a division where suppressing Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Matt Ryan is of paramount importance.

15. Raiders (from Cardinals) — Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA: At 6-9, 309 pounds, he may be the best pure left tackle prospect in a draft with few of them. But with incumbent LT Donald Penn turning 35 Friday, it’s obvious Jon Gruden wants to safeguard Derek Carr well into the future, even if Miller doesn’t start immediately.

16. Bills (from Ravens) — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: Buffalo deals up to add a 6-5, 253-pound 19-year-old to the middle of its defense after losing Preston Brown, who tied for the league lead in tackles last season, in free agency. Despite his size, Edmunds runs like a deer and may plug in as the Bills’ next middle linebacker on base downs. However, his size will make him a tempting option as a pass rusher as he refines his skills and instincts.

17. Chargers — Derwin James, S, Florida State: A bit of a fall for a player who said he’d be a top-10 pick at the scouting combine. But James clearly has top-10 talent, and this is a great pickup for the Chargers, who did not re-sign Tre Boston. James joins a defense run by Gus Bradley, who adheres to Seattle’s philosophy — apropos since James could be a combination of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas if he maximizes his estimable potential. James’ skill set is similar to Fitzpatrick’s, but he’s a more imposing hitter if not as adept in coverage — not a problem given the Bolts are flush at corner.

18. Packers (from Seahawks) — Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: It was obvious the Pack wanted corner help when they made an offer for Chicago’s Kyle Fuller earlier this offseason, which the Bears matched. Alexander should form a nice young duo with Kevin King, last year’s Round 2 pick, though he struggled as a rookie. Injuries limited Alexander in 2017, but he picked off five passes two years ago. His return skills are a bonus.

19. Cowboys — Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State: Huge for an LB at 6-4, 256 pounds, he has tremendous range honed while playing eight-man football in high school in tiny Riggins, Idaho. The selection of Vander Esch is a multi-pronged hedge for Dallas, which lost Anthony Hitchens in free agency, has yet to see Jaylon Smith regain his form after his horrific knee injury at Notre Dame and constantly must compensate for the injuries that dog Sean Lee, who has never played a 16-game schedule.

20. Lions — Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas: The first pick of the Matt Patricia era isn’t sexy but should be a boon to the league’s worst ground game two of the past three seasons. A three-year starter for the Razorbacks, Ragnow, who only recently began generating first-round buzz, can play guard or center.

21. Bengals (from Bills) — Billy Price, C, Ohio State: Nice recovery for Price, whose stock as a first rounder was jeopardized when he suffered a pectoral injury while bench pressing at the combine. But he should be an instant upgrade at center (or even guard) after Cincinnati let Russell Bodine go. The offensive line undermined the Bengals throughout 2017 but suddenly looks much more formidable with Price and LT Cordy Glenn, who was obtained via trade in March.

22. Titans (from Chiefs via Bills and Ravens) — Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: He had six sacks and 13 TFLs in his senior season despite dealing with a nagging groin injury. Improved pass coverage was a personal point of emphasis in 2017, and that will need to continue if he’s to assume the starting role vacated by Avery Williamson. But Evans is rangy and should be a nice addition to an underrated defense.

23. Patriots (from Rams) — Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia: He has very nifty feet, and apparently that’s enough to get him a chance to replace Nate Solder as Tom Brady’s new bouncer on the blind side. Still, Wynn (6-2, 313) isn’t nearly as long as 6-8, 325-pound Solder and will have to prove he can handle elite NFL edge rushers after many draft experts predicted his NFL future at guard.

24. Panthers — DJ Moore, WR, Maryland: Finally, a wideout gets picked. After hauling in 80 passes for 1,033 yards last year for the Terps, the 6-0, 210-pounder could soon find himself as Carolina’s No. 1 receiver in an offense that will evolve under new coordinator Norv Turner. Moore thrives racking up yards after catch, and his game is somewhat similar to Curtis Samuel, a converted running back who was the Panthers’ second-round pick in 2017. Between Moore, Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen, Cam Newton could find himself getting rid of the ball a lot more quickly as a rule of thumb.

25. Ravens (from Titans) — Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina: Outgoing GM Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end himself, makes Hurst the first tight end off the board this year. He should fill the void left by Dennis Pitta’s premature retirement. Hurst dropped just one pass in college while catching 100. A former baseball player, he will be 25 on opening day, but his age isn’t likely to bother 33-year-old QB Joe Flacco.

26. Falcons — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: Somewhat of a luxury pick for a team with very few holes, Ridley will unite with fellow Crimson Tide star Julio Jones. Probably the most polished route runner in this class, Ridley averaged 75 catches and more than 900 yards during his three seasons in Tuscaloosa despite sometimes shaky QB play. He skews small (6-1, 189) but should provide a dangerous slot option between Jones and Mohamed Sanu after Taylor Gabriel left for Chicago. Ridley’s 4.4 speed will also make defenses think twice about rolling too much coverage toward Jones.

27. Seahawks (from Saints via Packers) — Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State: A man among boys in the Mountain West, he led the country by running for 2,248 yards in 2017 and scored 23 TDs on the ground. He also took seven kickoffs to the house over the past three seasons. Penny’s a load given his combo of size (5-11, 220) and 4.46 40 speed; yet, he also nimbly changes direction. A bit of a surprise as the second back off the board and also a somewhat head-scratching selection for Seattle, which already has a wealth of runners on the roster but seemed to need defensive help amid an ongoing overhaul on that side of the ball.

28. Steelers — Terrell Edmunds, S, Virginia Tech: The older brother of Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds, the duo becomes the first set of brothers to be first-round picks in the same draft. With no linebackers on the board worthy of replacing Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh opts for much needed safety help instead … even if Edmunds seems a stretch this high. Still, his 4.46 speed should allow him to play either safety spot next to newly signed veteran Morgan Burnett, who’s versatile himself.

29. Jaguars — Taven Bryan, DT, Florida: This sure seems like a case of the Jags sticking to their board, because they certainly don’t need defensive line help. Bryan isn’t highly experienced, but his motor’s always revving, and he can play inside or out like new teammates Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell. But good teams don’t steer away from talent, and Tom Coughlin’s Giants won two Super Bowls with a deep fleet of pass rushers.

30. Vikings — Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida: GM Rick Spielman must have let Mike Zimmer make this pick given the coach’s endless desire to collect talented corners. Hughes may replace unsigned Terence Newman as the Vikes’ new nickelback between Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, both first rounders themselves. However, Hughes’ real impact as a rookie may be as a returner after he averaged nearly 32 yards a kickoff in college and almost 17 per punt return.

31. Patriots — Sony Michel, RB, Georgia: Get ready for a lot of Alvin Kamara comparisons, but they’re not inaccurate. Michel averaged 7.9 yards a carry last year against SEC competition and ran for 16 TDs despite sharing the backfield with Nick Chubb. He becomes New England’s first first-round running back since Laurence Maroney in 2006 and should immediately shoot to the top of a depth chart that lost Dion Lewis to free agency.

32. Ravens (from Eagles) — Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Newsome’s swan song will be one to remember as he trades back into Round 1 for the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner. Jackson passed for 3,000 yards and rushed for 1,500 each of the past two seasons, the only player in college football history to post such historic numbers. And, make no mistake, he did this from a pro-style offense coached by Bobby Petrino. Still, Jackson will have to work on his mechanics, one reason he was a 57% passer in college. He should have time to develop as Flacco winds down and may find an important tutor in Baltimore’s newly signed backup, 2012 offensive rookie of the year Robert Griffin III. A draft bookended by Heisman winners becomes the first since 1999 with five quarterbacks taken in the first round.

***

Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

Top 40 NFL draft prospect rankings: Who’s best overall in 2018 class?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)  —   The 2018 NFL draft kicks off Thursday night. But after months of study, USA TODAY Sports’ hay is in the barn. Here is Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz’s ranking of the top 40 prospects available:

1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Speed, power, elusiveness, instincts and pass-catching ability make him the complete package. It’s rare for a running back to earn widespread consideration as the best overall prospect in any draft, but Barkley’s complete skill set is something seldom seen.

2. Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: With overwhelming power and nimble feet, he might be a generational prospect, albeit at a position that could limit his value relative to the rest of the top 10 picks. Nelson is one of the draft’s best bets to be a long-term standout.

3. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: The most polished of all the passers available, he offers the refined mechanics and quick processing needed to be a distributor at the center of an offense. So long as Rosen develops a better feel for pressure and cuts down on forced throws, he should have no trouble consistently picking apart defenses in the short-to-intermediate area that now largely defines most passing attacks.

4. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: When he’s on the field, Smith stands a good chance to be the first defender to find the ball on a given play. Displaying range both as a tackler and in coverage, he aces nearly every test for an off-ball linebacker.

5. Derwin James, S, Florida State: Whether he’s working in coverage, at the line of scrimmage or as a blitzer, James is a lightning strike capable of short-circuiting any offense. Assuming he settles down a bit as a tackler, he should be a do-everything leader in the secondary.

6. Bradley Chubb, DE North Carolina State: Stouter and more polished than most pass rushers at this stage, Chubb doesn’t bring the elite speed off the edge typically seen from top-10 picks. Yet there’s little questioning his ability to close out on opponents in the backfield thanks to his acceleration, strength and hand usage.

7. Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: Very nearly the total package, he has perhaps the best combination of easy athleticism and leadership of any passer. Lapses with his footwork and a penchant for turnovers (22 last season) need to be addressed. But his ability to throw comfortably to every level of the field, as well as extend and create plays on his own, makes him a rare prospect.

8. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: Fluid athleticism and a well-rounded skill set should help him follow in the steps of 2017 defensive rookie of the year Marshon Lattimore and the Buckeyes’ other recent first-round defensive backs. Matching up with taller receivers could prove troublesome, but Ward has shown he can win with the ball in the air.

9. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama: If he strictly operated as an outside corner, he might be a consensus pick as the top defensive prospect in the draft. But with a proven track record working in the slot as well as at safety and outside linebacker, he projects as a versatile leader who will be at ease with an assortment of coverage responsibilities.

10. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: The Heisman Trophy winner is hardly the prototype of an NFL passer at just over 6-0 and 215 pounds. But his rapid-fire delivery and prowess throwing into tight windows elevate him to a level other quarterbacks of comparable statures have struggled to reach. Though Mayfield thrives operating outside of an offense’s structure, he must calm some of the more frenetic elements of his playing style.

11. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: In a muddled receiver class, his deep speed and comfort creating his own separation leave him as the top pass-catching weapon available. Consistently beating press coverage will be his foremost challenge at the next level.

12. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: At 6-5 and 253 pounds with explosive speed, he might have the highest ceiling of any defender in this draft. If Edmunds can hone his instincts to keep ball carriers in front of him, he will be a hazard either whether working in the middle or off the edge.

13. DJ Moore, WR, Maryland: Finally getting his due over the last few months, he’s become one of the draft’s biggest post-combine risers. With breakaway speed and impressive toughness for his size, Moore should make life hard on opposing corners.

14. Harold Landry, DE/OLB, Boston College: A quick burst and acrobatic bend make him difficult to handle off the edge, and he has more than enough ways to take advantage of an off-balance blocker. Don’t expect Landry to anchor against the run, though.

15. Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: The Football Bowl Subdivision leader with eight interceptions still has plenty of room to develop given that he has just one year of experience as a starter.

16. Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: Overshadowed after an injury-plagued season, he has since reaffirmed that he is both smooth and aggressive, with the ability to contribute early whether outside or in the slot.

17. Isaiah Wynn, G, Georgia: If he were taller than 6-2 with more wingspan, he would be a lock as a top-20 selection. Even at guard, Wynn’s comfort in both mirroring pass rushers and paving holes in the run game should make him a high-end starter.

18. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Issuing a warning to any team that might pass on him, Guice said, “If you don’t draft me, I’m going to give your defense hell.” That’s an apt characterization of his rugged running style, which could be problematic for his opponents if he stays healthy (or himself if he doesn’t).

19. Sony Michel, RB, Georgia: The shiftiness and acceleration are reminiscent of reigning offensive rookie of the year Alvin Kamara, and the fellow Southeastern Conference standout could carve out a similar all-purpose role if he resolves some issues with his patience and ball security.

20. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan: His initial burst and ability to fire through gaps are unmatched among interior defenders in this class. With his heart condition cleared, he could become the latest undersized defensive tackle to become a disruptive force.

21. Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: Pairing a lengthy (6-6, 264 pounds) frame with impressive speed, Davenport has the tools to be a terror off the edge. A slow build-up out of his stance and underdeveloped feel for pass rushing, however, could diminish the early returns on that athleticism.

22. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: The playmaking ability is impossible to ignore. Now it’s up to Jackson and his future team to figure out how to harness his talent as both a runner and thrower while cleaning up his footwork and continuing to bring him along as a pocket passer.

23. Will Hernandez, G, Texas-El Paso: A mauler in the run game, he is a throwback (check the neck roll) who should set the right tone for almost any line.

24. Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: He’ll make his living working sideline to sideline in coverage, though he should also be an asset on blitzes.

25. Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Commanding double teams and anchoring at the point of attack is his game, though coaches will demand better leverage.

26. Vita Vea, DT, Washington: As a run stuffer, he is already operating at a pro level. But he runs the risk of topping out as a two-down space eater if he can’t translate his impressive movement ability into a more consistent game plan as a pass rusher.

27. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: Struggles with speed rushers could yield some early turbulence in the NFL, but McGlinchey brings a strong punch as the best overall offering at tackle.

28. Taven Bryan, DT, Florida: “The Wyoming Wild Man” either will be a defensive line coach’s dream or disappointment, as he oscillates between dispatching opposing linemen and taking himself out of plays with his overly aggressive tendencies.

29. James Daniels, C, Iowa: Flexible and fluid on the move, he shapes up to be the top center in this class with lots of room for growth.

30. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State: Still learning to tap into his considerable physical skills after only one year as a starter, Vander Esch should only grow more comfortable both in pursuit and coverage over time.

31. Connor Williams, G/OT, Texas: He might not end up the franchise left tackle some expected him to be, but teams won’t have trouble finding a place for one of the draft’s best technicians.

32. Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis: More than a slot maven, Miller will make life easy for any quarterback with his giant catch radius and outstanding body control.

33. Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado: His physical traits point toward a No. 1 cornerback who can thrive in press coverage, though his technique will require refinement.

34. Justin Reid, S, Stanford: With experience playing an assortment of roles, he has the savvy and skill set to be the versatile piece defensive coordinators crave in the secondary.

35. Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida: His toughness and physical style should make him a pest for opposing receivers, so long as he lands in a scheme heavy on man coverage.

36. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: Lacking the same explosive fluidity as Georgia backfield mate Michel, Chubb nevertheless demonstrates the know-how needed to be consistently effective in tight quarters.

37. Billy Price, C, Ohio State: A pectoral injury at the combine pushed him off the radar a bit. But Price’s strength, sound approach and leadership will keep him in high demand.

38. Ronald Jones, RB, Southern California: “The Texas Tesla” is a breakaway threat, though he’ll have to learn not to floor it on every carry as his blocks develop.

39. Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State: In a league driven by creating mismatches, the former volleyball and basketball standout will be an imposing target on jump balls and in the red zone.

40. Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State: It might take time to learn how to separate from NFL defenders consistently, but he has the speed and body control to become a dependable downfield threat.

Next tier: Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State; Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming (see our explanation for why he didn’t make the top 40); Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina; Austin Corbett, G, Nevada; Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford;

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Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz

NFL draft arrives, and pressure is on teams to get top value

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Dave Gettleman has learned many lessons as an NFL executive. The new general manager of the New York Giants has one mantra in the draft room.

He says teams must “stay with the value.” They “can’t get too cute” or hope for a player to be around in a later round.

The Giants pick second Thursday night after the Cleveland Browns. The New York Jets go third, followed by the Browns and Denver Broncos.

Plenty of top quarterbacks are available: USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. There’s also Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb.

Analyst and former NFL general manager Phil Savage says the Giants are in the “catbird seat” and can go in many directions, but he encourages them to consider Barkley.

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The 2018 NFL draft begins Thursday night. But before the Browns kick things off, here are 18 questions that will be answered over the seven-round “annual player selection meeting.”

1. How many quarterbacks will go in the first round?

Wyoming’s Josh Allen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and UCLA’s Josh Rosen are virtual Round 1 shoo-ins. All could go in the top 10 (or even top five), and it’s possible some combination will be the first trio picked first, second and third since Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith in 1999. If Louisville’s Lamar Jackson also hears his name called Thursday, this draft would also be the first since 1999 with five first-round passers (Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown were the other two taken 19 years ago). And if just one more signal caller sneaks in — maybe a team decides it really wants that fifth-year option on Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph — this would become the first draft since the famed 1983 class (it included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino) with six first-round QBs.

2. What other QBs bear watching?

Rudolph will likely get picked early Friday. He’s got the size (6-5, 235), production — albeit in a spread offense — accuracy and demeanor teams look for. Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, Western Kentucky’s Mike White and Washington State’s Luke Falk are among other compelling developmental prospects. Most of them (with Jackson) have been linked to the Patriots as a possible replacement to Jimmy Garoppolo as Tom Brady’s understudy.

3. What will the Browns do?

After picking thrice in 2017’s first round, including No. 1 overall selection Myles Garrett, Cleveland currently owns the first and fourth overall picks this year and has three more in Round 2. New GM John Dorsey is holding his cards close, but the smart money suggests that he’ll take Allen or Darnold at the top and, barring a trade, will add either Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb at No. 4. This roster already feels far superior to the one that went 0-16 last year, but Dorsey also has to replace retired left tackle Joe Thomas and will likely monitor the cornerback and defensive tackle markets, too.

4. Why is the Giants’ pick so important?

A lot of intrigue here. Whatever GM Dave Gettleman does will have a cascading effect on the rest of the first round. This will be the first time the franchise has selected No. 2 since getting Lawrence Taylor in 1981. No pressure. New York clearly has holes, and Gettleman has to be thinking about the future beyond quarterback Eli Manning, who’s now 37. Still, a year removed from a playoff berth, it would seem Barkley or Chubb would best check the boxes to allow Manning and Co. the opportunity to be competitive while also adding a future cornerstone. But if Gettleman opts for a quarterback to let him learn behind a two-time Super Bowl MVP, who could really fault the strategy given how rarely this franchise is in position to get such a player?

5. Which teams are likeliest to trade? 

The Jets and Bills have already made moves up the board this offseason, while the Patriots picked up an extra first-round pick by sending Brandin Cooks to the Rams (New England joined Cleveland and Buffalo as teams with multiple Round 1 selections). Bills GM Brandon Beane seemed to be running a script out of the Eagles’ 2016 Carson Wentz playbook when he swapped tackle Cordy Glenn and the 21st pick for Cincinnati’s slot (No. 12). But if Beane has one more move up the ladder remaining to potentially get a quarterback, he has yet to show his hand. The Cardinals, who pick 15th, are the other team in obvious need of a young passer but not in a good spot to get one. The Giants, Browns (No. 4), Broncos (5th) and Colts (6th) might all be tempted to move down with the right offer.

6. What kind of statement will Saquon Barkley make?

Ki-Jana Carter, a Nittany Lion like Barkley, was the last running back picked first overall — back in 1995 (and Carter’s injury-curtailed career served as a warning). No back has gone as high as No. 2 since Reggie Bush in 2006 — a plateau Barkley, who has strong backing in draft circles as the best player available, is more likely to reach. But given the splashes recent top 10 picks like Todd Gurley (2015), Ezekiel Elliott (2016) and Leonard Fournette (2017) have made, an every-down talent like Barkley seems virtually guaranteed of being no worse than a top-five selection.

“Whatever team drafts him, you’ve got yourself a guy,” LSU running back Derrius Guice told USA TODAY Sports when asked about Barkley. “He deserves all the love and attention he’s getting.”

7. Which RB will be taken after Barkley?

Guice will likely find himself in contention with Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to be the second back off the board. All seem to be hovering right around the late-first/early-second round area. USC speedster Ronald Jones and San Diego State star Rashaad Penny, who led the country with 2,248 rush yards in 2017, appear to be solid second rounders.

8. Will teams invest heavily in receivers?

Don’t be surprised to see wideouts struggle to command draft respect. Route running is becoming a lost art at the college level, where simplified offenses continue to “spread.” In the last three years, first rounders Corey Davis, Mike Williams, John Ross, Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, Kevin White, Breshad Perriman and Phillip Dorsett have been non-factors. This year’s crop doesn’t appear especially promising with none projected to go in the top 10. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley does know his way around a route tree, and that could make him the first chosen. But teams may be more reluctant to go after big-bodied “basketball players on grass.”

9. What’s a guard worth?

In the last two decades — with the exception of Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack in 2013 — no guards have gone in the top 10. (Leonard Davis, picked second in 2001, and Brandon Scherff, who went fifth in 2015, were college tackles who transitioned to NFL guards, but the point remains.) Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is widely viewed as one of this draft’s three best players and special enough that he’ll probably punch a top-10 ticket.

10. Are interior offensive linemen overtaking tackles?

Unlike guards, tackles have historically been coveted with premium picks. Not this year, though. Nelson will almost certainly be the first blocker taken and could be followed by Iowa center James Daniels and/or UTEP guard Will Hernandez. This year’s best pure tackle prospects, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey and UCLA’s Kolton Miller, could break into that mix or might find themselves lucky to get a first-round call. Texas’ Connor Williams and Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn are both college tackles likely to go the route of Davis and Scherff by moving inside.

Why the apparent shift? It’s probably a combination of factors. Tackles by nature are rare physical specimens, but spread offenses are also hurting their development (remember Jason Smith, Greg Robinson and Luke Joeckel?). Even a Hall of Fame-caliber player like Thomas never managed to sufficiently elevate those around him. However guards may see their value grow as interior blocking — against beasts like Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh — becomes more prioritized on offenses relying on short-area passing attacks.

11. Is there a new-age defensive position emerging?

Recent first-round picks like Mark Barron (2012) and Deone Bucannon (2014) entered the NFL as safeties before making their marks as athletic, if undersized, linebackers. Tyrann Mathieu doesn’t really have a pure position but displays defensive MVP-caliber impact when healthy. The 2018 draft features two players, Florida State’s Derwin James and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, who could be top-10 selections due to hybrid abilities. James classifies more easily as a safety, and Fitzpatrick looks more like a corner. Yet both can roam deep sections of the field, man the slot, cover tight ends or enter the box to defend the run or blitz. The price tag on that kind of versatility should become apparent Thursday.

12. Which linebacker goes first?

Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds could find themselves taken in the top 10. The first one picked will likely boil down to pure preference. Smith skews smaller (6-1, 236) but can cover a lot of ground and blitz. Teams that run 4-3 schemes (49ers, Bills and, now, the Colts leap to mind) will likely assign more value to him. Edmunds, just 19, is a 6-5, 253-pounder who also has great range (despite his size) and will likely develop into a bigger factor as a pass rusher. He should provide more scheme versatility than Smith but may struggle to excel quickly.

13. What will the Patriots do?

After exporting Cooks, New England will now pick 23rd, 31st, 43rd, 63rd and 95th in the draft’s first two days. Who knows what Bill Belichick will do — though history suggests he’ll package at least one of those selections, very likely to secure a high pick in 2019. And though Belichick doesn’t want to talk about filling needs, logic would dictate strong consideration for a left tackle, pass rusher, cornerback and, yes, a potential replacement for Brady.

14. What other QBs could meet their replacements?

Brady will turn 41 in August. But he’s hardly the only franchise passer facing his NFL mortality. Drew Brees is 39, Manning is 37 and Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers are both 36. Even Joe Flacco is 33 and coming an injury-marred season when he struggled extensively. Any could soon find a confident twentysomething swaggering into their quarterback room.

15. What about special teams?

Central Florida corner Mike Hughes and Texas A&M receiver Christian Kirk might be first rounders based on résumés at their natural positions. But both could see their value get a bump because they’re excellent in the return game. Also keep an eye on Washington’s Dante Pettis. The 6-1, 186-pounder is a capable receiver, but his real value may be in the third phase after he established a NCAA record with nine career punt returns for TDs.

16. Will there be another run on tight ends?

Last year, three tight ends were picked in the first round for the first time since 2002. But prior to 2017, only two were taken on Day 1 in the previous six drafts combined. South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, who will be 25 when the season starts, and Dallas Goedert, who has something to prove coming out of South Dakota State, have the skills to instantly upgrade an offense. But both project as borderline first rounders.

17. Which defensive line flavor will prevail?

A lot of quality defensive linemen — not necessarily edge rushers — are available, most offering distinctive styles. Washington’s 6-4, 347-pound Vita Vea could be a dominant nose tackle … but he must improve as a pass rusher. Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne and Stanford’s Harrison Phillips appear best suited to shutting down run lanes and collapsing pockets on four-man fronts. Florida’s Taven Bryan has been compared to J.J. Watt (yes, that’s a bit much) and offers versatility and relentless effort. And, leveraging a low center of gravity, Michigan’s Maurice Hurst (6-2, 292) could be a gap-shooting interior disruptor, whose impact could be just a notch below similarly built players like Donald and Geno Atkins.

18. What does Bradley Chubb bring to the table?

This draft appears light on top-notch pass rushers, but Chubb’s about as good as they come. Denver’s Von Miller even opined on the Wolfpack star, saying: “He’s Khalil Mack and Von Miller put together.” Quite a bar for the 6-4, 269-pounder. But a player who’s as relentless at chasing running backs as quarterbacks (and their hand towels) could be every bit as good as Garrett even if Chubb won’t command that No. 1 overall slot.

***

2018 NFL DRAFT: Who needs to draft a quarterback? Ranking NFL teams’ need from 1-32

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   This year’s NFL draft represents one of the deepest quarterback classes in recent memory. As many as six passers could hear their names called in the first round as franchises search for saviors. A secondary wave of passers could come off the board in Day 2, with some teams potentially looking to replace aging starters.

Here’s a look around the league, examining teams most to least likely to draft quarterbacks.

Tier 1 — Desperate need

1. Browns: Owners of the draft’s first and fourth picks, Cleveland will take a quarterback. They acquired Tyrod Taylor to serve as a bridge, but the need for a true franchise face remains strong.

2. Jets: Determined to fill this long-standing void, they shipped the sixth overall pick and three second-rounders to the Colts in order to move up to No. 3. New York re-signed Josh McCown and added Teddy Bridgewater but picking up a premier youngster remains the goal.

3. Bills: They’ve already traded up from 21st to 12th but may not be done. They also own the 22nd overall pick and, despite signing AJ McCarron, could use it as bait to get into position for a longer-term solution.

4. Cardinals: Carson Palmer’s retirement left them scrambling. Arizona signed Sam Bradford for 2018, but it’s hard to count on the oft-injured No. 1 pick from 2010.

Tier 2 — Can’t wait much longer

5. Giants: Eli Manning is 37 and coming off a subpar year. He has gas left in the tank but is only under contract through 2019. New GM Dave Gettleman picks 2nd and 34th and should probably spend one of the two on a passer.

6. Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill has displayed occasional promise. But the eighth overall pick of the 2012 draft is coming off of a season lost to a torn ACL, and there’s no guarantee he can regain top form.

7. Broncos: They just signed Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal. But can he duplicate last year’s surprise success in Minnesota? Picking fifth overall, Denver should seize the opportunity to take a top passer even if he has to sit for a year.

8. Saints: Drew Brees, 39, just signed a two-year, $50 million contract and continues to play at a high level. But it’s hard to predict when older quarterbacks will drop off.

9. Patriots: Tom Brady likes to think of himself as ageless, but he’ll turn 41 this year. Friction within the organization adds a degree of uncertainty. With two picks in both Rounds 1 and 2, hard to imagine New England doesn’t spring for a quarterback early.

10. Ravens: Joe Flacco is 33 and coming off an injury-riddled season. Robert Griffin III just signed a one-year deal, but his durability issues remain. Even if Baltimore doesn’t take a quarterback in the first round, GM Ozzie Newsome could still find a quality option on Day 2.

11. Steelers: Retirement talk swirled around Ben Roethlisberger, 36, last year, but he’s sticking around and says he wants to play beyond 2018. However, no one would fault Pittsburgh for drafting his potential replacement.

12. Bengals: Andy Dalton has three years left on his contract. But it makes sense to add a project to the mix after McCarron’s departure.

13. Jaguars: Banking on continuity and growth, they gave Blake Bortles a three-year, $54 million extension rather than pursue a replacement in free agency. But Bortles has limitations. If last season winds up representing his ceiling, Jacksonville would look smart by adding a viable alternative.

14. Chargers: Philip Rivers is extremely durable and hasn’t shown signs of regression. But he’s also 36.

Tier 3 — Can afford to wait

15. Colts: Andrew Luck’s promising career has been derailed by injury (he’s missed 26 of his last 48 starts, including the entire 2017 season because of an ongoing shoulder issue). Indianapolis hopes he’s able to return to form in 2018 but struggled mightily in his absence last year. Backup Jacoby Brissett is under contract for two more years, but GM Chris Ballard also has enough picks that it could make sense to draft a talented insurance policy.

16. Packers: Aaron Rodgers should be back at full strength this year. Green Bay also has young but experienced backups in reserve with newly acquired DeShone Kizer and holdover Brett Hundley.

17. Redskins: They just traded for Alex Smith and gave him a four-year extension. Colt McCoy remains the backup, and Kevin Hogan is a third option. , and also traded for Kevin Hogan. If an intriguing prospect falls, Washington could pounce. But pressure to draft one no longer remains.

Tier 4 — Not likely on the radar

18. Texans: Deshaun Watson returns from knee surgery, aiming to build on his promising rookie showing.

19. Bears: They like Mitchell Trubisky’s potential.

20. Chiefs: Tantalizing Patrick Mahomes takes over with Smith gone.

21: Cowboys: In Dak they trust.

22. Buccaneers: He regressed some last year, but Jameis Winston is still their guy.

23. Titans: Marcus Mariota looks to take the next step after reaching the playoffs for the first time.

24. Raiders: Derek Carr looks to grow under new coach Jon Gruden.

25. Falcons: Matt Ryan could sign an extension any day.

26. Lions: Matthew Stafford’s five-year, $135-million extension kicks in this year.

27. Panthers: Still Cam Newton’s team.

28. Seahawks: Russell Wilson. Enough said.

29. Rams: Jared Goff looks like the real deal.

30. Vikings: They just went all in on Kirk Cousins.

31. 49ers: They got their guy, Jimmy Garoppolo, for the next five years at the cost of $137.5 million.

32. Eagles: Carson Wentz returns, and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles remains for now. Third stringer Nate Sudfeld offers promise.

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The top quarterback prospects entering the 2018 NFL draft:

1. Sam Darnold, USC (6-3, 221): He possesses all of the desired physical tools and intangibles for a franchise quarterback — big arm, good mobility, pocket presence, a knack for extending plays and strong leadership. Darnold didn’t throw at the scouting combine but did impress teams during interviews. He later dazzled with his pro day performance. Darnold completed 63% of his passes for 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns last season but was also picked off 13 times and fumbled a dozen more. He’s spent  a lot of time working to improve his ball security, and it shouldn’t cost him in the draft. Projected: potential No. 1 pick

2. Josh Allen, Wyoming (6-5, 237): No quarterback has helped himself as much during the pre-draft process. During the Senior Bowl, Allen proved that, despite coming from a small school, he can compete against top-end talent. He showed off his cannon of an arm, doing so again at the combine. At times during the Senior Bowl, receivers had trouble catching his passes, so he has to work on his touch. Accuracy had ranked among his weaknesses, but he displayed improvement at the combine and at his pro day. Evaluators believe Allen can develop into a Ben Roethlisberger-type quarterback. Projected: potential No. 1 pick

3. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (6-1, 215): The most prolific passer in the draft, he’s coming off of a Heisman Trophy campaign that saw him record 41 touchdown passes and only five interceptions in the regular season. Highly accurate, Mayfield completed more than 70% of his passes each of the past two years. He does a great job hitting receivers in stride, often leading to additional yards after the catch. Mayfield had some maturity issues to address the past few months, but he interviewed well with teams, impressing them with his candor and sense of accountability. He’s undersized but knows how to deliver the football and lead. Projected: potential top five

4. Josh Rosen, UCLA (6-4, 226): Many call him the most natural passer in this class. Fundamentals, field vision, decision-making — all top notch. But two primary areas could hinder Rosen. He’s got a thin frame and suffered two concussions in college, so some talent evaluators question his durability. Rosen’s leadership abilities also have come under question. Some people familiar with him say he can rub people the wrong way, and others fear he lacks an appreciation for the game. If Rosen can dispel those concerns, he should be just fine. Projected: potential top five

5. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State (6-5, 235): Coming off of a career year (4,904 yards, 37 touchdowns, just 9 interceptions), he offers intrigue and upside. He’s big with great arm strength and, after interviewing and performing well at the combine, has improved his stock. Rudolph still needs work having run a spread offense that never required him to call plays in a huddle or take snaps under center, but he has the desire and smarts to develop. The ideal situation is for him to go to a team with an established veteran, which would afford him time to develop. Projected: Round 1-2

6. Lamar Jackson, Louisville (6-2, 216): One of the most electrifying athletes in the draft, he’s had to answer questions about his ability to play quarterback in the NFL. Jackson wants nothing to do with talk of a switch to wide receiver, which is why he didn’t run at the combine or his pro day. He’s also made things harder for himself by deciding not to hire an agent. Some teams have had trouble contacting him to schedule meetings or workouts, so it will be interesting to see if that costs him in the draft. Jackson also needs refinement of his skills. As is the case with every quarterback, fit is extremely important. Jackson would benefit from a creative offensive coordinator who can capitalize on his mobility and is perhaps willing to implement elements of Louisville’s offense to help ease the rookie’s transition. Projected: Round 1-2

7. Luke Falk, Washington State (6-4, 215): He also put up big numbers while running a spread offense. Falk has an above average arm but only average mobility. He could eventually develop into a solid NFL starter. But first, he’ll have to bulk up and do a better job of reading coverages. Additionally, he needs learn how to play under center. Projected: Round 2-4

8. Kyle Lauletta, Richmond (6-3, 222): A dark horse from a small school, he shined at the Senior Bowl, earning MVP honors, and further strengthened his standing with a strong combine. He’s a perfect project to groom behind a starter for a few seasons. Projected: Round 2-4

9. Mike White, Western Kentucky (6-5, 224): A former pitcher who threw 90 miles per hour in high school, he has naturally power and touch in his arm. White has demonstrated an ability to scan the field and work through progressions, however he lacks feel in the pocket and isn’t especially mobile. Anticipation and ball security can improve. Projected: Round 3-5

10. Chase Litton, Marshall (6-6, 232): An early-entry candidate whom some believed would benefit from remaining in college. He locks onto targets and needs to improve his ability to adjust on the fly. Size is a plus. Projected: Round 5-6

11. Tanner Lee, Nebraska (6-4, 218): A prototypical pocket passer, he had a solid showing at the Senior Bowl, where he displayed his big arm, quick release and ability to operate under center. However, turnovers were an issue for him in college. He also needs to be more patient and improve his red zone execution. Because of his measurables, he’ll garner attention but remains very much a project. Projected: Round 6-7

12. Kurt Benkert, Virginia (6-3, 218): He owns great arm strength, accuracy and ability to extend plays but must improve his field vision and decision-making. Benkert had an underwhelming Senior Bowl week, displaying his inexperience in a pro-style offense —especially while working under center and dropping back. Projected: Round 6-7

Teams in need of quarterbacks

1. Browns: The seemingly annual search continues for a franchise almost certain to pick another passer with this draft’s first pick.

2. Jets: The hunt for a worthy successor to Joe Namath heads into a new phase after GM Mike Maccagnan traded up to get the No. 3 pick.

3. Bills: Tyrod Taylor is gone and AJ McCarron seems like no more than a stopgap. Buffalo has already traded up in Round 1 once this offseason and could do so again.

4. Cardinals: They don’t select until pick 15 of the first round but don’t have an answer beyond Sam Bradford’s one-year deal in 2018.

T5. Chargers/Giants/Patriots/Saints/Steelers: Every one of these teams has a longtime starter who’s at least 36. How much longer can any of them wait to get an heir apparent?

***

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones

NFL mock draft 2018: Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield could be biggest QB dominoes

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   With the NFL draft set to kick off next week, the top picks in the first round have yet to take shape.

What has become clear: Quarterbacks should fly off the board quickly, with demand once again seemingly outweighing supply. How exactly the dominoes fall at that position could set the rest of the first round into motion.

1. Browns — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Taking the strong-armed Allen seemed almost unfathomable even just a few weeks ago. Now buzz continues to build that Cleveland is make a considerable gamble on the quarterback who might have the highest upside of any thrower. With Tyrod Taylor able to open the season as starter, Hue Jackson can keep Allen out of the fire as he gets a better handle on his subpar mechanics and ball placement (56% completion rate in college). But Jackson needs to show he can tailor his offense to Allen’s skill set after doing few favors last year for DeShone Kizer, another talented but raw rookie.

2. Giants — Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: This spot may be where the draft truly begins to take shape. New general manager Dave Gettleman has a wealth of options, whether  taking a non-quarterback who can help Eli Manning and Co. right away or trading back to stockpile picks. New York hasn’t had a top-five pick since 2004, however, and should strongly the consider the opportunity to take a franchise passer. Darnold is a prodigious talent whose physical and mental makeup make him a perfect pick as Manning’s apprentice.

3. Jets (from Colts) — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Passing up Josh Rosen could be a difficult proposition for GM Mike Maccagnan given how well-aligned the draft’s most pro-ready quarterback appears to be with offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates’ philosophy. But Mayfield generates a unique spark for an offense in need of someone who can create on the fly. If his brashness and signature flare translate to the Jets, Broadway Baker will be a phenomenon.

4. Browns (from Texans) — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: If quarterbacks are taken with top three picks for the first time since 1999, Cleveland stands to be perhaps the primary benefactor. With their new QB already in tow, the Browns can then snap up a cornerstone at another position. Barkley’s rare blend of power, speed and agility place him on a level that few incoming running backs from the past 10 years can match. Most importantly, he allows any team to recalibrate its offense and ease the burden on the rest of the unit, which would be a welcome development for a Cleveland attack that could still be finding its footing with a young passer and new left tackle after Joe Thomas’ retirement.

5. Broncos — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Maybe John Elway really is satisfied with Case Keenum and prepared to bypass a top quarterback should one fall to him. Yet it’s difficult to imagine Elway being satiated with a short-term solution when he’s staring at a potential franchise passer that has proven so elusive so far. Rosen’s refined skill set would be an even more welcome addition should Keenum prove to be a one-year wonder.

6. Colts (from Jets) — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: A run on quarterbacks would be a welcome development for Indianapolis, which would have its pick of most of the top non-skill position players after trading back to this spot. Solidifying the offensive front for Andrew Luck with someone like Quenton Nelson could be a strong consideration. But it’s hard to overstate the value that Chubb, the draft’s pre-eminent pass rusher, would bring to a defense that ranked second to last in sacks last season.

7. Buccaneers — Derwin James, S, Florida State: Tampa Bay needs to reload in the secondary after ranking as the worst defense in total yards and against the pass in 2017. Whether in coverage, run support or on a blitz, James makes plays and brings much-needed leadership with his confident demeanor.

8. Bears — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: After spending the last three months with an almost singular focus on aiding second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago should be overjoyed if Nelson is still on the board. A mauler in the run game with the footwork and form to excel in pass protection, Nelson might have both the highest floor and ceiling of any prospect in the class.

9. 49ers — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia:Reuben Foster’s place on the team is under “great scrutiny” after he was charged with three felonies. Regardless of his future, the 49ers need play-making ability and leadership at linebacker, and rangy Smith offers ample amounts of both.

10. Raiders — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: Aiding former defensive player of the year Khalil Mack is a priority for Jon Gruden, and Edmunds is the kind of player who can help redirect attention from opposing offenses. His supersized frame (6-5, 253) and remarkable athleticism should make him an asset both as a run stuffer and edge rusher.

11. Dolphins — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: While Miami might have more pressing needs, a top-flight cornerback would be a welcome addition for a defense constantly trying to keep up with Tom Brady and the Patriots passing attack. Ward is the class of his position and demonstrates both the fluidity and ball skills to make life difficult for all kinds of opposing receivers.

12. Bills (from Bengals) — Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: With a pressing need at quarterback and five of the top 65 picks, Buffalo seems like a solid bet to make another move to vault even higher after already advancing to this slot. If Buffalo misses out on the first four quarterbacks, however, Jackson is the kind of distinct talent that the team can build an offense around — and might have to, given his elusive ability as a runner and uneven showings as a pocket passer.

13. Redskins — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: There’s no question the NFL’s last-ranked run defense needs reinforcements. At 6-4 and 347 pounds, Vea can clog lanes in the early going while he learns to build on his impressive movement skills.

14. Packers — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine places a premium on keeping quarterbacks on their toes with a wide range of different looks, and Fitzpatrick is the kind of versatile piece he would covet. Though the do-everything defensive back doesn’t fit the traditional role of a lockdown corner on the outside, Green Bay would find plenty of ways to capitalize on his intelligence and closing speed.

15. Cardinals — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: Arizona might have to wait until a later round to pull the trigger on a quarterback. Instead, Ridley would add another dimension as a deep threat to a potentially explosive offense and provide a needed option beyond Larry Fitzgerald.

16. Ravens — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: Facing his last draft in Baltimore, Ozzie Newsome might be inclined to find Terrell Suggs’ successor with the massive Davenport, who would be well-served by some pass rushing classes at Ball So Hard University.

17. Chargers — Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State: No team gave up more yards per carry (4.9) last season than the Bolts. Vander Esch’s lateral speed and battering-ram hits would be a salve, especially if he shows more restraint in his pursuit.

18. Seahawks — Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: Once overflowing with burgeoning talent in the secondary, Pete Carroll’s defense has entered a full-on rebuild amid the departure of Richard Sherman, among others. Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme would afford Jackson a role in which he could make lots of plays on the ball after he led the Football Bowl Subdivision with eight interceptions last year.

19. Cowboys — DJ Moore, WR, Maryland: After dispatching Dez Bryant, Dallas has a need at wide receiver too large to ignore. Moore thrives on creating separation and picking up yards after the catch on out routes and screens, which would be a boon for Dak Prescott.

20. Lions — Harold Landry, DE/LB, Boston College: It would only be fitting for the Matt Patricia era in Detroit to kick off with a pick from the New England area. What Landry lacks in a strength he makes up for with his explosive burst and top-notch elasticity.

21. Bengals (from Bills) — James Daniels, C, Iowa: The interior of Cincinnati’s offensive line is still in disrepair, and Daniels can serve as a stabilizing force for years.

22. Bills (from Chiefs) — Will Hernandez, G, Texas El-Paso: Richie Incognito’s retirement means the Bills are now without their three best starters from last year’s offensive line. The powerful Hernandez would open holes for LeSean McCoy, who last year averaged less than 4 yards per carry for the first time in his career.

23. Patriots (from Rams) — Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: With Nate Solder gone, New England could try to scrape by at left tackle with LaAdrian Waddle and Tony Garcia, last year’s third-round pick who missed the entire season with blood clots in his lungs. But the better tactic might be to grab McGlinchey to keep the pressure off Brady (and his eventual successor).

24. Panthers — Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: Carolina needs someone to fill the starting void opposite James Bradberry, and Alexander is a sticky cover corner whose athleticism and savvy will serve him well against an imposing array of NFC South receivers.

25. Titans — Sam Hubbard, DE/LB, Ohio State: Beyond the Buckeye connection, the slippery pass rusher might be just what Mike Vrabel is looking for as he tries to ramp up the pressure in Year 1.

26. Falcons — Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Atlanta has ample athleticism throughout its defense, but Payne will serve a needed role as a run stuffer who can handle the dirty work.

27. Saints — Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina: New Orleans has flirted with finding another tight end for Drew Brees, and the sure-handed Hurst could handle a starting role right away.

28. Steelers — Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: Replacing Ryan Shazier won’t be easy, but the athletic Evans can cover a lot of ground and shore up a defense with several holes up the middle.

29. Jaguars — Isaiah Wynn, G/OT, Georgia: Even after ponying up for Andrew Norwell, Jacksonville might look to further bolster its offensive line with the fleet-footed Wynn, whose truncated build portends a move inside.

30. Vikings — Connor Williams, G/OT, Texas: A savvy protector, he could be a quick fill-in at guard with potential to be a left tackle down the road.

31. Patriots — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Never afraid to take a flier when talent outweighs cost, Bill Belichick could deploy the rugged runner between the tackles while he creates mismatches for James White and Rex Burkhead elsewhere.

32. Eagles — Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State: With no pressing needs, Philadelphia can look to create further matchup problems by grabbing Goedert, who could be difficult to defend alongside Zach Ertz and a talented group of receivers.

***

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz

NFL mock draft 2018: Projecting first-round trades

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   The NFL draft is only three weeks away … which is to say we’ve officially entered the pre-draft rumor mill phase, which is billowing smokescreens and wild speculation fueling the league’s version of silly season. Delightful. So following the Rams’ lead — GM Les Snead has already made five significant offseason trades after obtaining WR Brandin Cooks from the Patriots on Tuesday evening — our latest mock draft will delve deep into the trade market while adding grist for a mill now in overdrive.

(And in a year when so many highly capable quarterbacks are coming out, this could provide a reasonably realistic slice of what’s to come on April 26, when the draft room phones could be ringing even more than usual.)

1. Browns — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Yup, the latest buzz links Allen and his ballistic arm to Cleveland. But before you dismiss the notion, consider that new Browns GM John Dorsey traded up last year, when he was running the board in Kansas City, to select Patrick Mahomes, who, like Allen, probably had the biggest fastball and most upside — and risk — of any incoming passer. And even though arm strength remains a dubious trait when forecasting NFL success, it’s definitely a nice attribute for quarterbacks who play in the AFC North’s cold and windy climes. Like Mahomes, Allen would also reap the benefits of joining an up-and-coming roster while sitting behind a veteran, Tyrod Taylor in this case.

2. **PROPOSED TRADE** Bills (from Giants) — Sam Darnold, QB, USC: OK, let’s have some fun. Buffalo didn’t believe in Taylor and certainly didn’t invest in AJ McCarron at a level that would suggest team brass believes he’ll replicate his championship feats at Alabama. But with Darnold, widely regarded as the best overall quarterback in the draft, on the board in our scenario, GM Brandon Beane has to complete his systematic trek to the top of the board to get the long-awaited successor to Jim Kelly. But this won’t come cheaply given the price the Jets already paid (three second rounders) just to move up three pegs. Giants GM Dave Gettleman could reasonably expect Beane to fork over the 12th and 22nd picks of this draft and next year’s first rounder.

3. Jets (from Colts) — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Had he not been born in 1943, Joe Namath might have been a Millennial right out of central casting. So don’t expect GM Mike Maccagnan to flinch at taking Rosen — there’s probably no rookie QB better equipped to step right into Gang Green’s lineup — no matter how much former Bruins coach Jim Mora elaborates/equivocates about him.

4. Browns (from Texans) — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Dorsey will owe the football gods quite an offering if he winds up with the quarterback of his choice and Barkley, who’s almost universally regarded as the draft’s best player and perhaps the perfect guy — see Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, et al. — to relieve pressure on a sidekick like Allen.

5. Broncos — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: Denver let perennial Pro Bowler Aqib Talib go and may lose Bradley Roby to free agency next year. Cover corners grow on trees in Columbus, Ohio, and Ward is ripe for the picking, capable of stepping into Talib’s shoes and keeping the No Fly Zone devoid of enemy TD passes.

6. Colts (from Jets) — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: Though GM Chris Ballard surely remains open for business as he rebuilds the foundation around Andrew Luck, he’ll be hard pressed to bypass a pass rusher (and relentless run stopper) of Chubb’s caliber — especially since he’s capable of closing out games and enabling Luck  to hand off more.

7. **PROPOSED TRADE** Giants (from Buccaneers) — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Gettleman strikes again. Using the 12th pick acquired from Buffalo as bait, he gets back on the horn with Bucs GM Jason Licht, who took DE Jason Pierre-Paul off his hands last month. Knowing he has to get in front of Chicago, which employs Nelson’s former Fighting Irish O-line coach (Harry Hiestand), Gettleman could also send Licht a third rounder to flip from 12th to seventh. Why do it? Nelson may be the best player in the draft not named Saquon. He would help the Giants win now and later regardless of which quarterback he’s protecting and will surely help revive a dormant ground game. All that aside, Gettleman’s mancrushes are reserved for his beloved “Hog Mollies.”

8. Bears — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: They spent free agency putting new pieces around QB Mitchell Trubisky and would surely like to count Nelson as part of that effort. Barring that, there’s probably not another offensive player on GM Ryan Pace’s top-10 radar. But Fitzpatrick would enhance a defense charged with combating slot receivers like Randall Cobb, Golden Tate and Stefon Diggs. Fitzpatrick could eventually settle into a safety combo with former ‘Bama teammate Eddie Jackson if Adrian Amos moves on in free agency next year.

9. 49ers — Derwin James, S, Florida State: The Niners have been busy building a Seattle-style defense laden with former Seahawks, including CB Richard Sherman and Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith. James isn’t exactly Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor but is a special player whose makeup is a combination of skills that include some of the best attributes of Seattle’s star safety tandem.

10. **PROPOSED TRADE** Cardinals (from Raiders) — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Maybe Arizona won’t have to go that far for its long-term answer under center. We’ve got GM Steve Keim sending a third- and fifth-round pick to Oakland in order to swap their Round 1 slots and jump the Cards ahead of Miami, which has been widely linked to Mayfield. The fiery Heisman Trophy winner has every intention of playing right away and given his ability — and fellow Sooner Sam Bradford’s lengthy medical chart — it might very well be Mayfield feeding Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson under the capable tutelage of OC Mike McCoy.

11. Dolphins — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: Miami’s defense was merely average with Ndamukong Suh, which speaks volumes. Last year’s linebackers didn’t prove very effective despite the benefit of lining up behind Suh and the double teams he commanded. Hence, a strong case to be made for a guy like Smith, who’s far more capable of making plays on his own while bringing a nice streak of leadership.

12. **PROPOSED TRADE** Buccaneers (from Bengals via Bills and Giants) — Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida: Tampa Bay doesn’t have to drop far (or look beyond state lines) to snag a player who can further remedy the NFL’s worst defense in 2017 while also adding juice to the Bucs’ return game.

13. Redskins — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: No team gave up more rushing yards last year than the ‘Skins. Vea’s 6-4, 347-pound frame alone will obstruct running lanes, but he’s also uniquely mobile for a man his size and has shown the ability to bag quarterbacks, too.

14. **PROPOSED TRADE** Chargers (from Packers) — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: Bolts GM Tom Telesco admits needing more from his linebackers. It’s probably worth surrendering a fourth-round pick in order to leapfrog the Raiders for Edmunds, 19, who already packs 253 pounds onto his 6-5 frame. Yet his size doesn’t appear to impede his range, and that could bolster the AFC’s worst run defense, which is sometimes left vulnerable up the middle when Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are roaring around the edges.

15. **PROPOSED TRADE** Raiders (from Cardinals) — Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Jon Gruden would probably like another toy for his offense, but the smart play is putting more talent around Khalil Mack and a defense that ranked 23rd.

16. Ravens — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: Outgoing GM Ozzie Newsome’s final first-round pick might be best spent on a player who could ultimately supplant Terrell Suggs, who remains Baltimore’s best pass rusher at age 35. Davenport would benefit from Suggs’ wisdom and on-field presence before the seven-time Pro Bowl selection winds down.

17. **PROPOSED TRADE** Packers (from Chargers) — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: Jordy Nelson is gone, and Randall Cobb might be in a year. Ridley effectively mixes the skills of both, ready to run polished routes now and able to provide the deep speed lost with Nelson’s departure.

18. **PROPOSED TRADE** Steelers (from Seahawks) — Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: Pittsburgh’s defense — and Super Bowl aspirations — fell apart last season after LB Ryan Shazier was lost in Week 13. Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert probably can’t wait for Evans, whose abilities largely mirror Shazier’s, and would likely have to part with a third rounder and additional sweetener to get Seattle to drop 10 slots. But the championship window for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and others may close soon, and this is the kind of bold move that could secure a record seventh Lombardi Trophy.

19. Cowboys — DJ Moore, WR, Maryland: WRs Dez Bryant and Allen Hurns and TE Jason Witten are all nice weapons but essentially classify as rebounders. Moore is an explosive asset who could take this offense to another level.

20. **PROPOSED TRADE** Patriots (from Lions) — Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College: New England suddenly has a fair amount of holes yet also an ample supply of mid-round picks to move up. Why not deal with old buddies Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, who have a lot of work to do in order to remain relevant in the NFC North? New England’s inability to get a key defensive stop was on full display in Super Bowl LII. Landry might be the answer to the question that’s lingered since Chandler Jones was offloaded two years ago.

21. Bengals (from Bills) — James Daniels, C, Iowa:Trading for LT Cordy Glenn was a major step in the right direction, but Cincinnati’s O-line is not yet sufficiently fortified.

22. **PROPOSED TRADE** Giants (from Chiefs via Bills) — Taven Bryan, DT, Florida: Much of the focus in New York has been on offensive deficiencies, however the defense could also look appreciably different under new coordinator James Bettcher. Bryan is another talented big man likely to intrigue Gettleman and could project as a three- or five-technique depending on the front. And with the 2019 first rounder we gave Gettleman in the Buffalo deal, he remains well equipped to make a run at a quarterback next year if Eli Manning disintegrates.

23. Patriots (from Rams) — Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: Though WRs Danny Amendola and now Cooks are gone, it’s far more important to prioritize a bouncer for Tom Brady, who’s spent nearly every snap of his career capably protected by Matt Light and new New York Giant Nate Solder.

24. Panthers — Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: Carolina is installing a new offense under veteran coordinator Norv Turner. But despite the presence of scatback Christian McCaffrey, TE Greg Olsen and WRs Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith, there’s definitely immediate and long-term room for a player like Kirk, who can operate outside when not capably manning the slot. He could also take over return duties now that McCaffrey has become the lead back.

25. Titans — Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State: At 6-4 and 256 pounds, he’s built almost exactly like new Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel, an extremely versatile player during his 14-year NFL career. Vrabel could be the perfect sculptor for Vander Esch, who could give this defense a boost whether he’s lining up inside or on the edge.

26. Falcons — Will Hernandez, G, Texas-El Paso: Atlanta’s roster has very few holes. But Hernandez would represent a marked improvement without being a reach in the first round.

27. Saints — Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford: There’s a reason New Orleans wanted Suh. Phillips doesn’t have Suh’s gifts — certainly no knock on him — but his motor never stops, and his combination of strength and techniques refined as a three-time state wrestling champion in Nebraska would make him a formidable presence between Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins.

28. **PROPOSED TRADE** Seahawks (from Steelers) — Joshua Jackson, CB, Iowa: Seattle GM John Schneider likes to work the board and historically moves down, an approach which makes even more sense as he reloads the roster this year. At 6 feet and 196 pounds with exceptional ball skills, Jackson is almost a football clone of Sherman, who is slightly taller.

29. *PROPOSED TRADE** Dolphins (from Jaguars) — Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Ryan Tannehill’s problematic knee casts further doubt on a career that seemed to be maxing out at adequate before he initially went down in 2016. Jackson has significantly more upside, and Adam Gase, who’s worked with all flavors of quarterback, could be the guy to maximize his highly intriguing potential. It makes sense to trade back into the first round in order to get the prized fifth-year contract option, especially with a quarterback. Meanwhile, Jacksonville could ask for an additional third rounder while taking Miami’s Round 2 selection (42nd overall).

30. Vikings — Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: Mike Zimmer co-signed the massive free agent gamble on QB Kirk Cousins. Probably wise to now get him one of the corners he values so deeply, especially if Terence Newman doesn’t come back or finally breaks down once he turns 40.

31. *PROPOSED TRADE** Lions (from Patriots) — Sony Michel, RB, Georgia: The Alvin Kamara comparison he seems to invite is apt and would greatly enhance an offense that’s gotten little capability or reliability from its backs. Michel and LeGarrette Blount would be a potent tandem.

32. Eagles — Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina: Philly loves double-tight sets, but Zach Ertz had to say goodbye to Trey Burton and Brent Celek this offseason. Hurst would be an upgrade over both.

***

Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

NFL Roundup: Seven NFL draft WR options for Patriots to replace Brandin Cooks

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   The offseason reshaping of the New England Patriots offense continued Tuesday with another one of last season’s key figures departing.

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks was traded to the Los Angeles Rams, a person with knowledge of the deal told USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the trade had not yet been announced.

Cooks becomes the latest contributor from last year’s New England offense headed for new surroundings. Left tackle Nate Solder, running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Danny Amendola previously departed in free agency. And though slot receiver Julian Edelman is set to return after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the trio of Cooks, Amendola and Lewis accounted for 158 total receptions in 2017.

Though the trade might appear to make wide receiver a need, the Patriots could get by with Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, among others. But after picking up first- and sixth-round picks in the deal (while sending a fourth rounder back), the team could be seeking one additional target for Tom Brady.

Here are some of the top draft options they could look into as replacements:

– DJ Moore, Maryland: In a muddled receiver class, Moore offers perhaps the best combination of quickness and deep speed that any replacement for Cooks would need. He would be an immediate threat on screens and quick outs, and his separation skills should only improve as he learns to put his agility to use. While the price tag for him could be one of the two first rounders, he might be worth it.

– Calvin Ridley, Alabama: Could New England replace Cooks with the most touted receiver in the draft? The pairing might be difficult to pull off given that Ridley might not be on the board when the Patriots come up at No. 23. New England, however, would be hard pressed to find a better combination of route running and deep speed in this draft class.

– James Washington, Oklahoma State: From a production standpoint, no one can match him as a vertical threat after he posted 39 touchdown catches in his career. His compact build (5-11, 213 pounds) and pedestrian timed speed (4.54-second 40-yard dash) belie his downfield ability, but he could be an asset if he can refine his route running and establish himself as more of a short-area threat.

– Deon Cain, Clemson: The Tigers have put together quite the pipeline of pass catchers, and Cain has the physical tools to be the next standout. His proclivity for drops might land him in Bill Belichick’s dog house, but he is dynamic both as a downfield target and working after the catch.

– D.J. Chark, LSU: He had just 66 catches in three years, but his average of 21.9 yards per reception last season speaks to his downfield ability. Finding a consistent role for him could prove elusive given the potential overlap with Hogan.

– Courtland Sutton, SMU: At 6-3 and 218 pounds, the former basketball player could bring a physical presence to the receiving corps. But Josh McDaniels’ system thrives on receivers creating separation, and Sutton’s game centers more on winning contested catches.

– Christian Kirk, Texas A&M: He was already on the Patriots’ radar, personally confirming at his pro day that he was set for a private workout with New England. At 5-10, 200 pounds, however, Kirk has a skill set and frame that best suits him for the slot, where the Patriots are likely fine (though he would bring value as a returner, which New England might need with Amendola gone).

___

RANK TEAM RECORD CHANGE HI/LOW NOTES
1 Philadelphia
Eagles
13-3 1 / 24 Arrival of Michael Bennett offsets champs’ handful of departures. And Nick Foles might still fetch nice bounty once Carson Wentz fully recovers.
2 New England
Patriots
13-3 1 / 12 Tom Brady’s approaching 41, yet team let key pieces (notably LT Nate Solder) jump through QB’s closing window. Still, Pats get benefit of doubt.
3 Minnesota
Vikings
13-3 2 3 / 19 Ironically, their biggest question is an $84 million quarterback who’s never won a playoff game and must shoulder franchise’s weighty expectations.
4 Los Angeles
Rams
11-5 4 4 / 28 Star-studded roster and coaching staff welcomes Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. They’ve got the talent, but will they have the chemistry?
5 New Orleans
Saints
11-5 1 5 / 26 If they can avoid typical slow start for a change and ride a wave to at least a playoff bye, don’t be surprised to see them in Super Bowl LIII.
6 Jacksonville
Jaguars
10-6 3 3 / 26 This should be league’s top defense for next 3-4 years. And it will remain fresh and imposing if Blake Bortles can keep handing off 35 times a week.
7 Pittsburgh
Steelers
13-3 3 1 / 14 No denying Lombardi-caliber potential. But self-destructive tendencies remain, Le’Veon Bell’s still a distraction, and D has Shazier-sized hole.
8 Atlanta
Falcons
10-6 1 2 / 14 If offense makes same Year 2 leap under Steve Sarkisian it did with Kyle Shanahan, THEY could be first team to play Super Bowl on home turf.
9 Los Angeles
Chargers
9-7 9 / 31 Once they overcame kicking woes and adapted to new city and bandbox stadium, they were arguably AFC’s best team in second half of last season.
10 Green Bay
Packers
7-9 2 2 / 26 With Aaron Rodgers back to lead offense and Mike Pettine arriving to chart new defensive course, they return to relevance but in improved division.
11 Denver
Broncos
5-11 15 4 / 30 Focus will hinge on Case Keenum’s ability to be The Man. But watch a defense now appreciably different from Super Bowl-winning version of 2015.
12 Carolina
Panthers
11-5 1 2 / 20 Final ride for Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil could depend on how well Cam Newton adapts to new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s philosophy.
13 Houston
Texans
4-12 9 11 / 30 Perhaps no team’s outlook runs broader spectrum. Healthy Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt could mean playoffs. Unproven O-line could spell disaster.
14 San Francisco
49ers
6-10 2 14 / 31 Maybe they’ll run the table given Jimmy Garoppolo has never lost an NFL start. But progression of this defense is equally pivotal to playoff aspirations.
15 Tennessee
Titans
9-7 5 7 / 23 Progress (or lack thereof) by Marcus Mariota and the passing game likely to dictate fate of a team that otherwise appears solid across the board.
16 Kansas City
Chiefs
10-6 1 1 / 19 Optimism runs amok. But let’s not heap undue burden on QB Patrick Mahomes, who’s likely to have major performance swings in first year as starter.
17 Dallas
Cowboys
9-7 3 5 / 24 Sideshow following Dez Bryant certainly less worrisome than last year’s Ezekiel Elliott drama. Still, unexpected variables tend to crop up in Dallas.
18 Seattle
Seahawks
9-7 7 3 / 18 Long-touted competitive ethos will be sternly tested in a year when so many core players have left amid ongoing ascents of Rams and 49ers.
19 Washington
Redskins
7-9 2 6 / 25 Interior of both lines in question, another way of saying it remains to be seen if this team can be effective on ground or if it can stop run.
20 Detroit
Lions
9-7 2 / 23 Rifle-armed Matthew Stafford may be figuratively outgunned as team lacking balance begins transition to Matt Patricia, who’s never been a head coach.
21 Arizona
Cardinals
8-8 3 11 / 29 Fortunately for Sam Bradford’s health, he shouldn’t have to drop too deeply to feed David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. New culture a wild card.
22 Baltimore
Ravens
9-7 1 9 / 28 QB Joe Flacco and G Marshal Yanda are healthy but also need to be in peak form. Holes apparent for team that can’t depend on free divisional wins.
23 Oakland
Raiders
6-10 5 3 / 23 New playbook and management style under Jon Gruden could produce for steep learning curve on all sides. Defense still a big question mark, too.
24 Chicago
Bears
5-11 3 19 / 30 Their ingredients and recipe appear eerily similar to those used by 2017 Rams. But do Mitchell Trubisky and Matt Nagy have goods to deliver revival?
25 Cleveland
Browns
0-16 7 25 / 32 Unless schedule makers stick it to Cleveland, there’s a realistic chance team will win more games in September than last two seasons combined.
26 Tampa Bay
Buccaneers
5-11 2 8 / 28 League’s worst defense poised for quantum leap. But Jameis Winston’s legal issues still pending for team clearly outclassed in its division.
27 Cincinnati
Bengals
7-9 2 19 / 31 Marvin Lewis is back, but major philosophical changes occurring on both sides of the ball. New LT Cordy Glenn’s play could be microcosm of team.
28 Buffalo
Bills
9-7 9 3 / 28 They were living right for most of 2017. But what does it tell you when the Browns preferred Tyrod Taylor to new Buffalo QB AJ McCarron?
29 New York
Giants
3-13 2 10 / 31 Whither Odell? Can they block? Can they run? How will defense adapt to James Bettcher? What will Dave Gettleman do in draft? Truly a mystery team.
30 New York
Jets
5-11 17 / 32 Secondary should be one of league’s best … largely because it was only place they could find a big-ticket free agent willing to take their money.
31 Miami
Dolphins
6-10 8 11 / 31 Ryan Tannehill returns to offense stripped of Jarvis Landry, Jay Ajayi and Mike Pouncey in his absence. Skepticism for Suh-less D also fair.
32 Indianapolis
Colts
4-12 3 23 / 32 As much as any team, the 2018 forecast will largely be shaped by draft haul. But at end of day, it’s still all about Andrew Luck’s ability to play.

 

NFL owners to discuss 10 rules proposal changes next week

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —    NFL owners will be presented 10 rules proposals at their meetings next week, including changes to the catch rule and to the length of defensive pass interference penalties, and allowing personal fouls to be reviewed by instant replay.

The competition committee and several teams are bringing the proposals, which will be reviewed by owners beginning Monday in Orlando.

Other suggestions include making permanent spotting the ball at the 25-yard line following a kickoff; adding fouls for roughing the passer and penalties against players in a defenseless posture as reviewable in instant replay; designating a member of the officiating staff at New York headquarters to instruct on-field game officials to eject a player for a flagrant non-football act that drew a flag; and limiting the allowable time for a coach to throw a challenge flag.

Included in a dozen bylaw proposals is allowing a player on injured reserve to be traded, and schedule adjustments for western teams playing in the East.

Redefining the catch rule is the highest priority, according to Troy Vincent, the NFL’s football operations chief, and Rich McKay, who chairs the powerful competition committee.

“We tried to simplify the rule with a three-step process,” McKay said Friday. “Control, two feet down or a body part, and then anything that is a football act. It could be like Jesse James reaching for the goal line .”

The Steelers tight end had a likely winning touchdown catch overturned against New England, one of the most critical plays of last season. In 2018, if the new definition of a catch is passed, it would be a touchdown.

“We got rid of ‘going to the ground,’ which was definitely causing some issues on these calls,” McKay added of the process of completing a catch that has caused so much consternation.

Vincent noted that despite slight movement of the ball in a receiver’s hands, that is not loss of possession. Under the proposal, it would constitute a reception.

“With movement (of the ball), you can still have control with movement,” Vincent said. “That’s also addressed in the new proposal language.”

Equally controversial has been the defensive pass interference call. The Jets are proposing a change from a spot foul to a 15-yard penalty — unless the foul is determined by officials to be intentional and egregious. That suggestion drew plenty of discussion among competition committee members; both Vincent and McKay said it had “momentum” heading into the owners meetings.

Vincent was an outstanding defensive back in the NFL and has deep insight into pass interference.

“The difference between college ball and professional defensive backs is the (pros) were too skilled and too smart, and you can play the play, you can be strategic about it,” he said. “You don’t want a defensive back being able to strategically grab a guy, eliminate the options (on a play).

“As a former defensive back, on a professional level you can frankly bait a quarterback into doing whatever you want.”

McKay noted there was one 50-yard or longer defensive pass interference call last season, three of 45 or longer, and seven of 40 or more.

Allowing officiating director Al Riveron or designated staff members at New York headquarters to call for an ejection of a player is a proposal emanating from committee meetings with game officials.

“They were quick to point out in these situations where a lot is going on — a fight or something else in dead ball situations — many times they are at a loss to capture exactly what happened and the right numbers (of offending players),” McKay said.

Also proposed:

—If a team opens overtime with a field goal, then gets a turnover on the opponent’s next possession, that play will be run to conclusion. Previously, if the team that kicked the field goal fumbled the ball and it was run back for a touchdown by the opponent, that TD wouldn’t count because of a change of possession. Now, it would count.

Such a situation has never occurred since the rule change allowing each team an OT series.

—Owners will be asked to approve allowing video use on sideline and coaches’ box tablets. Now, only photos can be examined.

—Coaches will have a set amount of time during a commercial break to throw a challenge flag.

—Extra points need not be converted at the end of regulation after a team scores the winning touchdown.

McKay pointed to the end of the Saints-Vikings playoff game.

—Teams seeking head coaches after the season be allowed to negotiate and sign a contract, though the coach would still be prohibited from doing any work for his new team until his club is done in the postseason.

___

NFL free agency winners, losers: 49ers, Seahawks headed in opposite directions

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —    The NFL’s first wave of free agency is over. Signings will continue to trickle in over the next few weeks, but the majority of high-impact moves are already on the books.

Many team officials and coaches will say they’re happy with how it all played out, but there often is a sharp separation when evaluating which teams capitalized on the market and which didn’t.

The true fallout from these moves won’t become fully clear until teams take the field. But here’s a look at what appears to be some of the biggest winners and losers of free agency a week after the market opened.

Winners

San Francisco 49ers: Continuing the momentum gained as they closed out the season on a 5-0 swing, general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan further upgraded their roster in the last two months.

First came the five-year deal for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, followed by a three-year extension for wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who is coming off of a career year. They then added four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman following his release by the Seahawks. San Francisco also upgraded at running back, replacing Carlos Hyde with Jerrick McKinnon, who will fit perfectly into Shanahan’s system both as a ball carrier and pass catcher. Center Weston Richburg and linebackers Brock Coyle and Jeremiah Attaochu further strengthen the team’s core.

It’s realistic to believe the 49ers will have a legitimate chance to leap-frog the re-tooling Seahawks in the NFC West, and they could even threaten the division-champion Rams.

Cleveland Browns: New general manager John Dorsey and third-year coach Hue Jackson aren’t messing around. Before free agency even started, they took drastic steps to upgrade the roster, trading for wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and defensive back Damarious Randall. Then came the signings of running back Carlos Hyde, tight end Darren Fells, and offensive tackles Chris Hubbard and Donald Stephenson, among others.

Taylor is an underappreciated passer who seldom commits turnovers. Armed with weapons like Landry, Josh Gordon and Hyde, he has a chance to significantly improve the offense. And his presence means coaches don’t have to play a rookie quarterback before he’s ready.

Meanwhile, despite their many trades, the Browns still own five of the first 64 picks in the draft.

Minnesota Vikings: Despite reaching the NFC Championship Game, they decided to move on from Case Keenum and go all in on Kirk Cousins, whom they landed him on a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. Minnesota then addressed the other side of the ball by signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

The Vikings believe they now have a roster fit to contend for a Super Bowl with a top-rated defense, a three-time 4,000-yard passer and a diverse collection of weapons.

Tennessee Titans: General manager Jon Robinson and first-year coach Mike Vrabel deepened their ties to the Patriots by bringing on cornerback Malcolm Butler (five years, $61.24 million) and running back Dion Lewis (four years, $20 million).

Lewis gives quarterback Marcus Mariota and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur a versatile piece, while Butler at times has been one of the better corners in the league. Just as importantly, the two bring a winning mentality.

Los Angeles Rams: Their changes were more fueled by trades than signings, but the Rams still look like winners. Los Angeles loaded up at cornerback, acquiring Marcus Peters from the Chiefs and Aqib Talib from the Broncos while also signing Sam Shields and re-upping Nickell Robey-Coleman. General manager Les Snead said his team would be aggressive this offseason, and he has certainly backed up those words in reshaping the defense.

Losers

Seattle Seahawks: They released Sherman, telling him they wanted to create greater financial flexibility. Additionally, they lost key pieces in tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Paul Richardson, and defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Michael Bennett. Team officials understood the need to reshape the roster in hopes of staving off a full-blown rebuild, but Seattle still looks poised to take a step back.

New England Patriots: They already find themselves in an offseason of change with former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia now the head coach of the Lions. But they’ve got more work ahead of them as they try to rebound from the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. Butler, Lewis, wide receiver Danny Amendola and left tackle Nate Solder all signed elsewhere. Solder’s departure to the Giants could be the biggest loss of all, as Tom Brady now needs a new blindside protector.

Miami Dolphins: The cap-strapped team still managed to sign Amendola away from the Patriots and acquired pass rusher Robert Quinn from the Rams. But Miami traded Landry and released star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and three-time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey.

***

The modern NFL quarterback has evolved over the past 35 years, beginning with Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway, continuing into the 2000s with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and then entering the new era with Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Andrew Luck. As QBs figure to dominate the draft-day discussion in the upcoming NFL draft, For The Win looks back at the last 35 drafts to pick the best classes of the era.

(Click here for the worst QB classes.)

But first, a look at some numbers. Starting with the 1983 draft, there have been 453 quarterbacks selected by NFL teams. They’ve run the gamut from Hall of Famers to players who never stepped on the field for a preseason game. A look at those 453 reveals:

The good:

• Six are in the Hall of Fame (five more aren’t yet eligible but figure to be locks: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger)
• 38 played at least 10 seasons as an NFL starter
• 48 had a winning record (minimum: 50 starts)
• 72 were elected to a Pro Bowl
• 169 were the primary starter for a team for at least one season

The bad:

• 175 never started a game in the NFL
• 190 never threw a touchdown pass
• 263 threw at least one touchdown pass (but 124 of them threw more interceptions)

The ugly:

• 128 never threw a single pass in the NFL
• 318 were taken with a pick higher than Tom Brady’s No. 199
• More than half of the drafted quarterbacks (248 of 453) haven’t combined to throw as many touchdown passes as Peyton Manning.

And now, the 10 best QB draft classes of the last 35 years.

Some things to remember: The draft was 12 rounds through 1992 and eight rounds in 1993 before adopting the current seven-round format in 1994. Also, our selection of the worst QB drafted takes into account draft position, expectations and (lack of) NFL success. If you were a first-round pick who started a season and flamed out of the league, that’s considered worse than a sixth-round QB who never played a game.

1983

The best: John Elway (1st round, No. 1 overall)
Others: Dan Marino, Jim Kelly
The worst: Todd Blackledge (1st round, No. 7)
1st round QBs: 6
QBs drafted: 16

The Class of ’83 isn’t just hype; it’s by far the greatest collection of quarterbacks ever to be taken in a single draft. You could throw out dozens of statistics to prove why, but one is all you need: Three quarterbacks were elected to the Hall of Fame from the ’83 draft (Elway, Kelly and Marino). That’s the only draft of the Super Bowl era in which more than one QB went to Canton, let alone three. The six QBs taken in the first round is also a modern draft record.

2004

The best: Philip Rivers (1st round, No. 4)
Others: Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick
The worst: J.P. Losman (1st round, No. 22)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 17

The top three picks in ’04 were Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger. That’s two Super Bowl winners and a Pro Bowl stalwart who may be the best pure quarterback of the draft, albeit one drafted to a team that didn’t have as much success.

(You can debate why. Is it the chicken or the egg? Were the Chargers mediocre because Rivers couldn’t lead them to bigger things or was Rivers placed in an impossible situation with an owner whose main concern was leaving San Diego? Whatever the answer, Manning seemed to make the right choice in refusing to play for the Chargers.)

Not even the ’83 draft can boast such quality with its top three picks, as Todd Blackledge was the second quarterback selected that year, in between Elway and Kelly. And, quite famously, Kelly and Marino didn’t win Super Bowls, leaving Elway as the only one from his class to win a ring. That leaves just one other QB draft class of the past 35 years that can boast multiple Super Bowl winners from the same draft. That class came in …

2012

The best: Russell Wilson (3rd round, No. 75)
Others: Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill
The worst: Brandon Weeden (1st round, No. 22)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 11

Who’d have guessed? Thanks to Nick Foles’ surprising Super Bowl win with the Eagles, he joins Russell Wilson as a 2012 draftee with a championship.

Back then – heck, even a few months ago – that would have been impossible to predict. If you’d have been told another quarterback from 2012 would have won a ring already, there was a bevy of options from which to choose.

Andrew Luck would have been the natural choice before injuries derailed him promising career. He could either return to form or fade away, like too many NFL players before him. Then there was Griffin (the No. 2 pick) and Russell Wilson, leading their teams to the playoffs in their rookie seasons.

When, the next year, Foles was in the midst of an 27 TD, 2 INT season with the Eagles, there appeared the chance that the class of 2012 could just maybe – possibly – challenge the class of 1983 one day. Then RG3 fizzled, Luck got hurt and Foles was pushed out of Philly.

Now, with Luck and Tannehill on the road to recovery, Kirk Cousins (who the Redskins drafted after Griffin) becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL and Foles having a Super Bowl MVP to his name, maybe the class of ’12 can at least get within shouting distance of ’83.

Interestingly, the most successful quarterback of the draft (Wilson) is perhaps the biggest question mark headed into 2018, with his successful Seahawks stripped for parts in free agency.

2005

The best: Aaron Rodgers (1st round, No. 24)
Others: Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton
The worst: David Greene (3rd round, No. 85)
1st round QBs: 3
QBs drafted: 14

The 49ers wouldn’t mind having that No. 1 pick back.

While Alex Smith turned into an above-average QB in San Francisco, Aaron Rodgers, who went 23 picks later, is a Super Bowl champ, MVP winner and future Hall of Famer. The rest of the draft class sounds nondescript – Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Campbell, Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, Derek Anderson – but they’ve combined to have the most 20-win careers of any QB class in our time span.

That sounds like a low bar to clear, sure, but compare that to the next year when just two quarterbacks have 20 wins or the year after that when none reached that mark.

1993

The best: Drew Bledsoe (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Mark Brunell, Elvis Grbac, Trent Green
The worst: Rick Mirer (1st round, No. 2)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 8

The 10th anniversary of the ’83 draft didn’t bring any Hall of Famers into the NFL, but Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell and Trent Green all had solid NFL career with each posting 50+ wins. Bledsoe was a worthy No. 1 but the run of success didn’t last long – Mirer was one of the biggest busts of all time at No. 2. Brunell and Green were steals in the fifth and eighth rounds, respectively.

1998

The best: Peyton Manning (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Batch, Brian Griese
The worst: Ryan Leaf (1st round, No. 2)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 8

Peyton Manning ended up going at No. 1, where he belonged, but the fact that it wasn’t even a debate is as preposterous now as it was then. Manning was a textbook example of NFL front offices overthinking decisions.

No quarterback was ever more hyped, or more scrutinized, as Manning was in high school and at Tennessee. Despite living up to those expectations, Peyton still got picked apart both in college (when he lost the Heisman to Charles Woodson in the greatest robbery in the award’s history) and before the draft when Ryan Leaf – RYAN LEAF – was seriously considered as an alternative.

But Indy got it right and the rest is history. Matt Hasselbeck was the second-winningest quarterback selected that year (sixth round, pick No. 187) and actually has the 15th most wins of any quarterback selected since 1993.

2001

The best: Drew Brees (2nd round, No. 32)
Others: Michael Vick
The worst: Chris Weinke (4th round, No. 106)
1st round QBs: 1
QBs drafted: 11

At the top, the 2001 QB class is better than almost any. Vick was taken with the No. 1 overall pick and Brees was No. 1 in the second round. Few other drafts can claim such star power, even if Vick’s star burned too bright, too quick.

Brees is likely to retire as the NFL leader in most major passing categories and is a surefire Hall of Famer. The reason the draft ranks doesn’t rank as high as its top two? No one else had more than 20 career wins, not Quincy Carter, not Mike McMahon, not Josh Booty, not Marques Tuiasosopo and certainly not Chris Weinke, whose 2-18 record stands as one of the worst in NFL history.

2008

The best: Matt Ryan (1st round, No. 3)
Others: Joe Flacco, Chad Henne
The worst: Brian Brohm (2nd round, No. 56)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 13

Joe Flacco has never made a Pro Bowl in his career, which isn’t a stunner until you consider how injuries, apathy and the movement of the game to before Super Bowl have made Pro Bowl bids about as hard to score as Valentines cards in elementary school. But Flacco is 92-62 in his career, won a Super Bowl, signed a $100 million deal and consistently has his Ravens in playoff contention.

Matt Ryan’s record is only slightly better than Flacco’s (95-63) and he doesn’t have the ring (he came close though) but he’s thought of as one of the game’s top QBs. The only other draft classes to produce two quarterbacks with 90+ wins are the two at the top of our list – 1983 and 2004.

2000

The best: Tom Brady (6th round, No. 199)
Others: Chad Pennington, Marc Bulger
The worst: Giovanni Carmazzi (3rd round, No. 65)
1st round QBs: 1
QBs drafted: 12

Brady alone isn’t enough to propel this class into the top 10. (Consider: Brett Favre’s 1991 class is closer to the bottom of the list than the top, as no one else who was taken that year had more than 15 career wins.) So, in addition to Brady, there was Chad Pennington and Marc Bulger. Neither were NFL stars (they had two Pro Bowls between them) but they played a combined 13 seasons and each won more than 40 games. Touting the win total of the class of 2000 is kind of like saying that between Hank and Tommie, the Aaron brothers hit 768 home runs, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

1987

The best: Vinny Testaverde (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Rich Gannon, Steve Beuerlein, Jim Harbaugh, Chris Miller
The worst: Kelly Stouffer (1st round, No. 6)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 19

A prime example of more being more, the ’87 draft didn’t produce a major superstar (Rich Gannon’s MVP season excepted) but between Testaverde, Gannon, Beurelein, Chris Miller and Don Majkowski, there were six legitimate NFL starters taken over the 12-round draft. They stayed around a while too; Testaverde played 21 seasons, Gannon played 18 and Beuerlein was in uniform for 17.

NFL competition committee to recommend catch rule changes

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —   WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The NFL’s catch rule would get less complicated if team owners approve recommendations from the powerful competition committee.

One of the first orders of business when the league’s annual meetings begin Monday in Orlando, Florida, will be a proposal by the committee to clarify what is a catch. Commissioner Roger Goodell said during the week of the Super Bowl he would urge simplification of the rules.

“Catch/no catch is at the top of everyone’s minds,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s football operations chief, said Wednesday before outlining the committee’s recommendations.

The owners will be asked to vote on clarifications that eliminate parts of the rule involving a receiver going to the ground, and that also eliminate negating a catch for slight movement of the ball while it is in the receiver’s possession. No calls in the last few years – not even pass interference – have caused more consternation than overturned catches in key situations, including those by Dez Bryant, Jesse James and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

“We were at the point as far as players and particularly coaches who asked, `Why is that not a catch?“’ Vincent said. “We talked to fans, coaches and players and we asked the groups, `Would you like this to be a catch?’ It was 100 percent yes.

“Then we began writing rules that actually apply to making these situations catches.”

Here’s what would constitute a catch if the owners approve the competition committee’s alterations:

control of the ball;

getting two feet down;

performing a football act or;

performing a third step.

The stipulation that slight movement of the ball while the receiver still has control no longer would result in an incompletion. Vincent pointed to the touchdown catch by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Corey Clement in the Super Bowl as an example of a player never losing possession of the ball despite slight movement.

“That’s what the fans, coaches and players want,” Vincent said. “They are the magical moments people are looking for, and that includes all of those (plays). It’s the biggest (proposed change). Why we want this is this is one call shaping results across the sport.”

Richard Sherman, the star cornerback who recently was cut by Seattle and signed with San Francisco, approves cleaning up the rules.

“I’m in favor of it because it gives the refs more clarity,” Sherman said. “I think anytime you can give the referees more of a straight line, an edge, to call plays, I think it’s better for the game.

“I think obviously there’s been a lot of scrutiny on the catch rule. Last year, my team was at the wrong end of it. A guy caught the ball and ran three or four steps, put his hand in the ground, fell, fumbled the ball and nobody touched him, and they said it was an incomplete pass. It was the most ridiculous thing I think I’ve ever seen.

“I think that they need to do more rules like that. They need to take the gray area out of a lot more rules because the rule book is getting too crazy. It’s getting too extensive. Every year, the refs are getting scrutinized left and right when it’s a bang-bang play. This game is happening at a million miles an hour and there’s really nothing you can do about it. The rule book is so complex. How many times can you think of 1,500 rules in a second of a play and see which ones apply to that particular play? So, I think any time they can simplify the rule book and simplify the ref’s understanding and the public’s understanding is better for the game.”

Competition committee members are chairman Rich McKay, president of the Falcons; Broncos general manager John Elway; Cowboys COO Stephen Jones; Giants owner John Mara; Packers President Mark Murphy; Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome; Saints coach Sean Payton and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

They also are recommending:

expanding protection of a runner, which also involves quarterbacks when they have given themselves up as a runner. Vincent cited Kiko Alonso’s hit on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco last season, saying the NFL must avoid an “unnecessary shot.”

    • “This is strictly a safety move,” Vincent said.

allowing the officiating staff at NFL headquarters in New York, using video review, to call for an ejection of a player committing an egregious non-football act. That would include throwing punches or being involved in a fight. Vincent pointed to acts by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans last season.

  • Vincent said there were no discussions within the competition committee regarding protocol for the pregame national anthem. Owners are expected to take up the subject on Monday or Tuesday, but no decisions are likely.

___

AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

NFL free agents in 2018: Which players will spark spending sprees?

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   With the deadline for NFL teams to apply the franchise tag passing on Tuesday, free agency is coming into focus.

Ahead of the window for players to sign with new teams opening on March 14, here is a rundown of the top 10 players currently set to be available on the market:

1. Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins

The clear crown jewel of the class, Cousins would instantly boost any of his potential suitors – likely landing spots include the Broncos, Vikings, Jets and Cardinals. But landing the 30-year-old will be costly. His annual average salary is a virtual lock to break 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s record of $27.5 million.

2. Drew Brees, QB, Saints

Brees’ presence on this list might be merely procedural, as he was restricted from being given the franchise tag and has given no indication he would look outside of New Orleans, especially after an NFC South title. Even at 39, he would be among the most in-demand players if he took a genuine look at the open market.

3. Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars

He’s coming off of an anterior cruciate ligament tear, but Robinson is just 24 years old, and has both the frame (6-3, 211 pounds) and skill set to reclaim his spot as one of the top young wideouts in the league.

4. Andrew Norwell, G, Panthers

It takes a rare player to command big money as a guard, but Norwell helped stabilize the offensive line for the Panthers and helped power Carolina’s bruising run game over the past several seasons. Using the contract Browns guard Kevin Zeitler signed last season (five years, $60 million) as a guide, Norwell could fetch a massive payday on the open market.

5. Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams

Posting a solid but unspectacular season under the franchise tag last season with the Rams, Johnson still could be set to cash in on a massive deal. Supply in the cornerback market doesn’t meet the outsized demand, so one team in need – think 49ers, Jets, Browns, Buccaneers or Even the Rams – likely will feel compelled to open up its wallet to lock Johnson in.

6. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seahawks

He still hasn’t replicated the pass-rushing production of his most effective seasons with the Jets in 2014 and 2015 and has had off-field issues that may scare away some teams. But if Richardson can focus on his game, his versatility could tempt defensive coordinators looking for a player who stops the run and can pressure the quarterback well.

7. Sammy Watkins, WR, Rams

Watkins – like Robinson – is only 24 years old and has shown big-play potential, scoring eight touchdowns on 39 catches in one season in Los Angeles. The dynamic receiver is still learning the NFL game, but he may land on his third team in five seasons. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft is still looking for a sense of consistency after showing some promising flashes throughout his career.

8. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings

The big question with Minnesota’s former starter centers on his health. But prior to his suffering a devastating knee injury in August of 2016, he looked every bit the franchise quarterback the Vikings had needed. He’ll likely need some more time to get back to game shape, but Bridgewater may be available at a significant discount relative to most starting-caliber options.

9. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks

This might be too high for a 31-year-old tight end. But even though he posted his least productive season for receiving yards (520) since his rookie season, Graham is still a force in the red zone with 10 touchdowns on just 95 targets last year. Graham may need fewer snaps, but can still be a difference maker on the right team.

10. Case Keenum, QB, Vikings

Keenum excelled in 2017, helping lead the Vikings to an NFC Championship Game appearance in a breakout season. If Minnesota doesn’t land Cousins, Keenum could return there, though he likely will spark considerable interest from other teams looking for a veteran to slide in as a starter.

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NFL free agency officially begins March 14. Here’s an early look at how AFC teams might approach the market. (Each club’s projected cap space is noted in parentheses, courtesy of overthecap.com as of March 7.)

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills ($24 million)

Free agents: LB Preston Brown, CB E.J. Gaines, LB Ramon Humber, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Deonte Thompson, FB Mike Tolbert, DT Kyle Williams

Advice: They’d obviously like to upgrade at quarterback, but it makes sense to pay Tyrod Taylor’s $6 million roster bonus given there’s no assurance Buffalo can do better in free agency or the draft. Coach Sean McDermott loves Williams’ leadership, but he’ll be 35 this year. Limited cap space might be better used on Brown, Gaines or perhaps a No. 2 receiver.

Miami Dolphins ($8M over the cap)

FAs: S Nate Allen, OL Jermon Bushrod, QB Jay Cutler, TE Anthony Fasano, QB Matt Moore, K Cody Parkey

Advice: Given QB Ryan Tannehill’s injury history, Miami needs to consider a quality alternative, and bringing Moore back might be the answer. But the cap doesn’t offer a lot of options, especially as long as WR Jarvis Landry’s $16M franchise tag eats into it.

New England Patriots ($15M)

FAs: WR Danny Amendola, RB Rex Burkhead, CB Malcolm Butler, LB James Harrison, RB Dion Lewis, ST/WR Matthew Slater, LT Nate Solder

Advice: Tough choices for the AFC champs, who also have to start pondering QB Tom Brady’s next deal. With WR Julian Edelman (ACL) on the mend, keeping Amendola seems wise unless another team swoops in with a huge offer. Brady would surely like to see Solder back, too, though the Pats tend not to overpay linemen (or running backs).

New York Jets ($90M)

FAs: K Chandler Catanzaro, CB Morris Claiborne, ILB Demario Davis, DE Kony Ealy, QB Josh McCown, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

Advice: Quarterback remains the priority, and a run at Kirk Cousins appears inevitable given New York’s cap resources. If that fails, the Jets are better served to re-sign McCown and target their next franchise passer with the sixth pick of the draft. Whoever is under center will need help at the skill positions, and GM Mike Maccagnan needs to acquire corner help (Malcolm Butler?) while also rebuilding the defensive line.

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens ($5M)

FAs: OL James Hurst, C Ryan Jensen, WR Mike Wallace, TE Benjamin Watson, RB Terrance West

Advice: Jensen, 26, developed into a player worth keeping. But Baltimore will have to do major restructuring in order to pursue top-line receivers like Sammy Watkins or Allen Robinson.

Cincinnati Bengals ($35M)

FAs: C Russell Bodine, TE Tyler Eifert, RB Jeremy Hill, QB AJ McCarron, LB Kevin Minter, OL Andre Smith

Advice: It would be nice to have Eifert back, though his injury history will deter any team from giving him a huge guarantee. But Cincinnati really needs help on the O-line and would be wise to recruit Nate Solder even though doing so would cut against the franchise’s general avoidance of outside free agents.

Cleveland Browns ($114M)

FAs: RB Isaiah Crowell

Advice: No team has more cap space, though few need more help than one coming off an 0-16 campaign. GM John Dorsey can set up the next two generations of Kirk Cousins’ family, though Cleveland doesn’t check the quarterback’s block for joining a contender. AJ McCarron, a favorite of coach Hue Jackson’s from their time together in Cincinnati, would be a more affordable bridge to DeShone Kizer or the quarterback Dorsey is expected to draft. Crowell should be easy enough to replace in a back-heavy draft, but Cleveland might also look at Solder if LT Joe Thomas retires. CBs like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler and a mid-tier wideout like Paul Richardson would fill significant holes.

Pittsburgh Steelers ($1M)

FAs: OL Chris Hubbard, LB Arthur Moats

Advice: With RB Le’Veon Bell carrying the franchise tag again, this time for $14.5 million, Pittsburgh has plenty of work to do to free some funds beyond restructuring WR Antonio Brown’s contract. A long-awaited multi-year deal for Bell remains an objective both sides seem to want.

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans ($67M)

FAs: T Chris Clark, T Breno Giacomini, S Marcus Gilchrist, CB Johnathan Joseph, QB Tom Savage, G Xavier Su’a-Filo

Advice: Their first- and second-round picks belong to Cleveland, so new GM Brian Gaine will be compelled to devote his ample cap space to rebuilding the offensive line and secondary. Solder, who played for Bill O’Brien during his rookie year in New England, also makes sense here. Houston could also target Panthers all-pro G Andrew Norwell in a bid to buy protection for franchise QB Deshaun Watson.

Indianapolis Colts ($72M)

FAs: LB Jonathan Bostic, DB Darius Butler, RB Frank Gore, G Jack Mewhort, LB Barkevious Mingo, WR Donte Moncrief

Advice: Name a position, and the cap-flush Colts probably need help — especially on defense, where a game wrecker like DL Sheldon Richardson or corner like Malcolm Butler are made to order. It’s also imperative they shore up the blocking in front of recuperating QB Andrew Luck, so count Indy among teams that should try to woo Norwell, Ryan Jensen and maybe Justin Pugh.

Jacksonville Jaguars ($35M)

FAs: CB Aaron Colvin, QB Chad Henne, WR Marqise Lee, G Patrick Omameh, LB Paul Posluszny, WR Allen Robinson

Advice: QB Blake Bortles needs receiving help. It would be nice to bring Robinson back, but his knee rehab apparently prohibited the Jags from franchising him. Big targets like WR Terrelle Pryor or TE Jimmy Graham might be helpful and more affordable. Even if the Jags draft a developmental quarterback (Lamar Jackson?), they should keep a familiar vet like Henne.

Tennessee Titans ($48M)

FAs: WR Eric Decker, WR Harry Douglas, DE DaQuan Jones, G Josh Kline, LB Erik Walden, LB Avery Williamson

Advice: Jones, Kline and Williamson are reliable players it would be nice to keep in order to maintain continuity without breaking the bank. A deep threat like Seattle WR Paul Richardson could really open up the offense.

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos ($25M)

FAs: OL Allen Barbre, RB Jamaal Charles, DE Jared Crick, LB Todd Davis, TE Virgil Green, QB Brock Osweiler, T Donald Stephenson

Advice: GM John Elway will surely have to find more cap space if he’s going to lure Cousins. Pursuing Case Keenum or AJ McCarron would be an easier route to addressing the quarterback conundrum while keeping most of the roster intact. Crick and Davis, both starters, can be replaced internally.

Kansas City Chiefs ($3M over the cap)

FAs: OL Zach Fulton, LB Derrick Johnson, DL Bennie Logan, S Ron Parker, WR/KR De’Anthony Thomas, WR Albert Wilson

Advice: They’ve already been active, with QB Alex Smith and CB Marcus Peters set to be traded. Most holes can probably be addressed during the draft, though one more veteran corner, say Prince Amukamara or Morris Claiborne, would help.

Los Angeles Chargers ($22M)

FAs: S Tre Boston, QB Kellen Clemens, TE Antonio Gates, OL Matt Slauson, LB Korey Toomer, G Kenny Wiggins

Advice: Boston played well in 2017 but seems to be seeking a major payday. GM Tom Telesco might be wise to first bolster one of the league’s worst run defenses. And what about locking up a fairly reliable kicking option like Sebastian Janikowski or even Cody Parkey?

Oakland Raiders ($16M)

FAs: LB NaVorro Bowman, CB T.J. Carrie, DT Justin Ellis, K Sebastian Janikowski, QB EJ Manuel, S Reggie Nelson

Advice: It probably makes a lot of sense to re-sign Bowman, who made an impact after coming across the Bay midway through last season. Otherwise, start pushing money into the 2019 cap while Jon Gruden evaluates this roster.

***

NFL free agency officially begins March 14. Here’s an early look at how NFC teams might approach the market. (Each club’s projected cap space is noted in parentheses, courtesy of overthecap.com as of March 8.)

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys ($3 million)

Free agents: WR Brice Butler, G Jonathan Cooper, LB Anthony Hitchens, RB Alfred Morris, LB Kyle Wilber

Advice: The looming question centers on WR Dez Bryant and whether he will accept a pay cut. Such a move would likely be the best outcome for both sides, but the Cowboys shouldn’t be afraid to move on from Bryant. Hitchens is likely too expensive to keep, and the team should focus on bringing along Jaylon Smith while finding cheaper depth.

New York Giants ($24M)

FAs: LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Ross Cockrell, RB Orleans Darkwa, G D.J. Fluker, LB Devon Kennard, OL Justin Pugh, C Weston Richburg, RB Shane Vereen

Advice: Fixing the offensive front is new GM Dave Gettleman’s top priority, and he could start by giving a serious payday to Panthers G Andrew Norwell, whom he signed as an undrafted free agent four years ago. While the linebacking corps is getting an upgrade with the trade for Alec Ogletree, Gettleman could continue looking elsewhere, perhaps plucking Nigel Bradham from the Eagles.

Philadelphia Eagles ($9M over the cap)

FAs: DT Beau Allen, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Nigel Bradham, TE Trey Burton, CB Patrick Robinson, RB Darren Sproles

Advice: The new champions already made their splashy move of the offseason, acquiring DE Michael Bennett. The focus now turns to sheering salary. Bradham and Burton will likely be too expensive to keep, while DE Vinny Curry and WR Torrey Smith could be cap casualties. Some of their free agents warrant short-term offers, but GM Howie Roseman was right to suggest the team won’t open the vault for anyone right now.

Washington Redskins ($48M)

FAs: CB Bashaud Breeland, LB Zach Brown, QB Kirk Cousins, G Shawn Lauvao, LB Trent Murphy, WR Terrelle Pryor

Advice: After acquiring QB Alex Smith, Washington is finally poised for a clean break from Cousins. But there’s still work to be done. The receiving corps could use a boost after Pryor’s struggles, and Paul Richardson would give Smith the vertical threat he needs to remain an efficient deep passer. Keeping Brown should be a priority.

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears ($50M)

FAs: CB Prince Amukamara, QB Mark Sanchez, G Josh Sitton, DE Mitch Unrein

Advice: The receiving corps is in line for an overhaul. Kansas City’s Albert Wilson might be a nice starting point given his familiarity with new coach Matt Nagy’s system, but the real prize would be Allen Robinson, who would give QB Mitchell Trubisky a true No. 1 while increasing the second-year passer’s confidence. CB Kyle Fuller is on the transition tag but should receive a long-term deal.

Detroit Lions ($27M) 

FAs: CB D.J. Hayden, CB Nevin Lawson, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Tahir Whitehead, S Tavon Wilson, LB Paul Worrilow

Advice: Even with DE Ezekiel Ansah franchised, rookie coach Matt Patricia will need more help in the front seven to get the 27th-ranked defense up to snuff. Probably makes to retain Ngata and Whitehead while perhaps taking a hard look at Bradham. RB Rex Burkhead would be a sensible fit for a backfield needing a jumpstart.

Green Bay Packers ($20M)

FAs: LB Ahmad Brooks, S Morgan Burnett, G Jahri Evans, CB Davon House, TE Richard Rodgers

Advice: New GM Brian Gutekunst expressed a desire to be more “aggressive” in free agency, and there are sensible targets like DE Muhammad Wilkerson and TE Trey Burton. A tight cap outlook, however, likely prevents the team from making many moves. WR Randall Cobb might need to take a pay cut.

Minnesota Vikings ($47M)

FAs: G Joe Berger, QB Sam Bradford, QB Teddy Bridgewater, DT Tom Johnson, QB Case Keenum, RB Jerick McKinnon, CB Terence Newman

Advice: Ample cap space, a blank slate at quarterback and loaded roster make Minnesota a sensible spot for Kirk Cousins. But the Vikings need to strike a deal that won’t hamper the long-term outlook of the defense, a point coach Mike Zimmer has stressed. A third-down back likely will be needed to replace McKinnon, who wants a larger role.

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons ($15M)

FAs: DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Taylor Gabriel, DT Dontari Poe

Advice: With Poe poised to walk, Atlanta could consider a serious upgrade on the interior with Sheldon Richardson. He still hasn’t tapped into his full potential, but coach Dan Quinn’s scheme could be the perfect fit. However accommodating Richardson would surely force GM Thomas Dimitroff to get creative, especially given QB Matt Ryan is entering the final year of his deal.

Carolina Panthers ($29M)

FAs: QB Derek Anderson, DT Star Lotulelei, G Andrew Norwell, DE Julius Peppers

Advice: Coach Ron Rivera said Carolina is pondering whether to add a dynamic receiver alongside Devin Funchess, and Sammy Watkins could be the desired upgrade. Norwell and Lotulelei will likely fetch deals too rich to match, especially if Carolina somehow lands Watkins. Getting Peppers back should be reasonable.

New Orleans Saints ($28M)

FAs: QB Drew Brees, QB Chase Daniel, DE Alex Okafor, S Kenny Vaccaro

Advice: Another deal for Brees is a virtual certainty given New Orleans would take an $18 million cap hit if one isn’t reached by Wednesday. With an emerging young core, New Orleans should manage its cap and avoid major signings that have proved costly in the past.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($71M)

FAs: CB Brent Grimes, G Evan Smith, S T.J. Ward

Advice: The Bucs have the spending power to make waves, but the pool of available talent doesn’t line up with their needs. With a scarcity of top-line pass rushers, GM Jason Licht might instead focus on a cornerback — perhaps Malcolm Butler or Aaron Colvin — and maybe a safety. Addressing the offensive line would also be wise. Nate Solder or Justin Pugh could upgrade an overwhelmed front.

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals ($20M)

FAs: CB/ST Justin Bethel, G Alex Boone, WR Jaron Brown, WR John Brown, LB Karlos Dansby, QB Blaine Gabbert, DE Frostee Rucker, QB Drew Stanton, G Earl Watford

Advice: With no quarterbacks on the roster and sub-optimal positioning to address the spot in either via free agency or the draft, new coach Steve Wilks is in a bit of a bind. Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford might make the most sense as low-cost, starting-caliber fliers. Case Keenum could also be an attractive option if the price is right. Arizona should also be in the market for a bargain cornerback.

Los Angeles Rams ($28M)

FAs: LB Connor Barwin, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, C John Sullivan, WR Sammy Watkins

Advice: GM Les Snead has already packed a full offseason’s worth of notable moves into the past few weeks, agreeing to acquire CBs Marcus Peters from the Chiefs and Aqib Talib from the Broncos while crafting trades to move LBs Robert Quinn (Dolphins) and Alec Ogletree (Giants). Sullivan is worth keeping, but Robey-Coleman and Johnson, who was franchised in the previous two offseasons, are likely gone with Peters and Talib on the way. Unless Watkins is amenable to taking a discount, Los Angeles should be prepared to walk away given DT Aaron Donald is in line for a massive extension.

San Francisco 49ers ($70M)

FAs: G Brandon Fusco, RB Carlos Hyde, CB Dontae Johnson, S Eric Reid

Advice: After a measured approach in his first free agency go-around, GM John Lynch could reshape the roster this year. Trumaine Johnson fills the team’s profile and need at corner, while Allen Robinson would give QB Jimmy Garoppolo the jump-ball receiver he lacks. Dion Lewis or Jerick McKinnon could thrive as all-purpose threats in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and Lynch would also be wise to consider guards like Justin Pugh or Josh Sitton.

Seattle Seahawks ($13M)

FAs: TE Jimmy Graham, OL Luke Joeckel, CB Byron Maxwell, WR Paul Richardson, DT Sheldon Richardson, K Blair Walsh

Advice: With DE Michael Bennett shipped to Philadelphia and CB Richard Sherman’s future in doubt, Seattle must decide whether to go full tilt with a rebuild. GM John Schneider will have to navigate a difficult cap outlook, though relief could come from cutting DE Cliff Avril and CB Jeremy Lane. Keeping either Sheldon Richardson or Paul Richardson would be nice, but Schneider can probably only afford one right now. Seattle is likely best off letting Graham walk.

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Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @mikemschwartz

NFL mock draft 2018: First round’s post-combine fallout

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —    INDIANAPOLIS — The scouting combine is supposed to provide one final, level playing field — theoretically — for NFL draft prospects to compete while being evaluated by all 32 teams. But Saquon Barkley, whom we pegged as the top pick in our mock draft a month ago, proved to be a man among boys during his workout at Lucas Oil Stadium and somehow managed to elevate his lofty stock. Asked if the Giants should take the Penn State star with the second overall selection, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock replied, “Saquon Barkley — if he’s there at two — is the most obvious choice in the draft. He’s special. He’s different. He’s all those things.”

And based on what we saw and heard during the combine, we think Barkley may wind up atop a lot more mock drafts — and, just maybe, the actual one.

1. Browns — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Some draft observers suggested his combine performance might have been the most impressive ever. The NFL Research Twitter account provided this context for the 6-foot, 233-pounder when comparing his numbers against those posted by recent all-pros in Indianapolis: Stronger than Joe Thomas, quicker than DeSean Jackson, faster than Devin Hester, jumps higher than Julio Jones. As crucial as quarterbacks are, how do you pass on talent like this, especially when you also own the fourth overall pick? Barkley’s persona also suggests he will have little trouble assuming the mantle of “face of the franchise,” and he embraces the challenge of turning around a franchise like Cleveland’s. He should be every bit as good as recent first-round backs (Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette), and placing Barkley in a backfield that’s about to lose leading rusher Isaiah Crowell to free agency alongside a rookie quarterback — remember what Elliott did for Dak Prescott in 2016 — could be the optimum way to ease a young passer’s transition. Take this to the bank: Cleveland will only get one crack at Barkley, and this is it.

2. Giants — Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: He didn’t throw at the combine, which could make him a perfect candidate for the Giants, who probably wouldn’t need him to throw a regular-season pass in 2018, either. New GM Dave Gettleman would probably love to get a shot at Barkley and will probably be tempted to add Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson, one of his beloved “hog mollies,” to what may be the league’s worst offensive line. But at the end of the day, it’s rare for the Giants to be in position to draft a franchise passer — they haven’t had a top-five selection since they wound up with Eli Manning in 2004. Though Manning, 37, may have another year or two in his tank, this is too good an opportunity to enact a bona fide succession plan, especially considering Darnold’s estimable upside and a low-key demeanor (like Manning’s) that would probably work well in The Big Apple.

3. Colts — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: With all signs pointing toward Andrew Luck’s return, they’re one of the few teams at the top of a quarterback-rich draft that doesn’t appear to actually need one. GM Chris Ballard will almost certainly be fielding calls from teams like the Cardinals and Bills  for what could be a very coveted spot. But Ballard also badly needs to reload a supporting cast — Barkley and Nelson would be ideal fits — that had too often let Luck down in recent years. Chubb looks like the pre-eminent pass rusher in a draft that seems deficient at this highly coveted position. And if Luck can revert to form and start putting points on the scoreboard, a guy like Chubb — remember how Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis did this back in the day for Peyton Manning — is the type of defensive game changer who can protect leads.

4. Browns (from Texans) — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Good luck finding better arm talent, and Allen put his hose on display to the world with a 70-yard hook-up during Saturday’s passing drills. Now arm strength isn’t necessarily a good indicator of success in the pros — just ask JaMarcus Russell — where decision making and accuracy are far more valuable attributes. However a big arm does count for something in Cleveland’s windy, lake-side atmosphere (not to mention tough conditions that arise in every other AFC North city), and new GM John Dorsey is the guy who traded up to get Patrick Mahomes’ howitzer for the Chiefs a year ago. Allen drew positive reviews in Indy, and his workout may have started to ease concerns about his 56% completion rate in Laramie, where he ran a pro-style offense but didn’t benefit from a ton of checkdown throws and was victimized by more than his share of drops.

5. Broncos — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Few teams appear as poised to win immediately as Denver, home to a championship-caliber defense and a pair of Pro Bowl wideouts — if GM John Elway can solve the quarterback dilemma that has existed since Peyton Manning retired two years ago. Rosen is widely viewed as the most NFL-ready passer coming out and seemed to allay some fears at the combine that his personality won’t mesh in a pro locker room, though a veteran-laden one like Denver’s might be a plus for a 21-year-old assimilating into the working world. Rosen’s football arrogance and belief he can make any throw — think former Broncos QB Jay Cutler — may be the bigger issue for him to work on at the next level.

6. Jets — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: This might be a good spot to pause and acknowledge that the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes — the Jets, Broncos and Browns are all expected to be serious suitors — could greatly influence the top of the board, as free agency generally will shape the draft once veterans can begin switching teams March 14. But the Jets, who have five different leading passers in the decade since they moved on from Chad Pennington, are still searching for a long-term answer to what’s become a perennial problem. Mayfield’s fiery persona and willingness to lead would theoretically fit well on a young team that needs an alpha male on offense.

7. Buccaneers — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: No team was worse at stopping the pass in 2017 than Tampa Bay, which is also set to lose CB Brent Grimes and S T.J. Ward in free agency. Enter Fitzpatrick, part of the breed of versatile young defensive backs who can roam deep like a safety, blitz like a linebacker and cover like a corner, especially in the slot. He’d definitely be a valuable asset in a division where the ball is so frequently in the air.

8. Bears — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Per Mayock, Barkley and Nelson are the two best players in a draft dominated by the quarterback conversation. Chicago has a Pro Bowl-sized hole on its O-line after declining G Josh Sitton’s option for 2018. Nelson will almost certainly be an upgrade, even when compared to an accomplished vet like Sitton, and has vowed to make a roomier pocket for his next quarterback, something Mitchell Trubisky would certainly appreciate in his second season.

9. 49ers — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: He can run all day and would form a nice three-down tandem with 2017 first rounder Reuben Foster as San Francisco transitions to a 4-3 defense that emphasizes rangy linebackers. And with 6½ sacks last year, Smith (6-1, 236) should also be an effective blitzer.

10. Raiders — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: At 6-5, 253 pounds, he’s bigger than Smith yet nearly as athletic. Edmunds racked up 30½ tackles for loss over
the past two seasons and is just the kind of asset a disappointing Oakland defense, ranked 23rd in 2017, badly needs. Only 19, Edmunds’ upside is insane.

11. Dolphins — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: The latest entry from a Buckeyes corner pipeline that’s produced three first rounders (Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple) in the past two drafts. Miami’s vulnerability at corner becomes apparent in games when opponents aren’t running the ball incessantly. And it always helps to have good cover guys in a division ruled by Tom Brady.

12. Bengals — Connor Williams, OT, Texas: It’s criminal that Cincinnati finished last in total offense in 2017 given the talent at the skill positions. The obvious reason for those struggles was horrific O-line play, especially at tackle, in a division where staunch defenses make it virtually impossible to mask such a problem. Williams may be a slight reach here, but that’s the position Cincinnati finds itself in at this point.

13. Redskins — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: No team gave up more yards on the ground last season than Washington, which was also gashed for a ghastly 4.5 yards every time an opponent handed off. Teaming Vea (6-4, 347) with 2017 first rounder Jonathan Allen, who only played five games as a rookie, would go a long way toward remedying this weakness, especially with D-line guru Jim Tomsula around to shepherd the youngsters’ development.

14. Packers — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: Despite having OLBs Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, Green Bay collected a pedestrian 37 sacks in 2017.  Worse, opposing quarterbacks had a collective 102.0 passer rating against the Pack, the worst showing by an NFC defense. Davenport will be making a big jump from UTSA’s competition level, but in this scenario he could focus early on showcasing his pass rush ability in sub packages.

15. Cardinals — Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Arizona desperately needs a quarterback but doesn’t presently have the cap room to make a serious play for Cousins and probably lacks the requisite draft position to get one of the top prospects. Maybe they can find a way to trade up, or maybe they move back a bit to get Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. But if they hold at No. 15, Payne could be the right value, an immensely strong player who would inject youth into an aging front, eating blocks that free guys like NFL sack champ Chandler Jones and former first rounder Robert Nkemdiche.

16. Ravens — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: He appears to be the best of what seems to be a relatively weak crop of receivers — and even the best at this position usually struggle adapting to the NFL. Ridley is probably equipped to step into the slot, but it’s probably a stretch to earmark him as a No. 1 target on Day 1. Regardless, Baltimore needs the help.

17. Chargers — Derwin James, S, Florida State: The Bolts are probably about to lose S Tre Boston in free agency. And GM Tom Telesco admitted the team needs more production at linebacker, a spot James could man on passing downs (unless he’s playing deep or in the slot). Also, the value is too good. James swore at the combine he won’t fall outside the top 10 and might be right.

18. Seahawks — Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida: Whether it’s planning for life after Richard Sherman or simply replacing Byron Maxwell, Seattle could use corner help. And with no picks in Rounds 2 or 3, the Seahawks only have one shot to get a good player at a premium position.

19. Cowboys — Arden Key, DE, LSU: Demarcus Lawrence had a breakout 2017 with 14½ sacks but is basically on a prove-it deal after being franchised. Key also has doubters after leaving Baton Rouge but made a good impression at the combine when he weighed in at a sculpted 238 pounds, though he’ll surely need to add some weight back to hold up in the NFL.

20. Lions — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Fournette’s former backup at LSU could be just the physical presence needed by a Detroit team that has ranked 28th or worse running the ball over the past four seasons and was dead last in 2015 and ’17.

21. Bills — Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: Buffalo seems likely to lose leading tackler Preston Brown in free agency. What better way to offset such a loss than with an athletic, instinctive player from Tuscaloosa?

22. Bills (from Chiefs) — James Daniels, C, Iowa: A neck injury forced reliable C Eric Wood into retirement after the playoffs. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes are known for producing NFL-ready linemen, and Daniels has the chops to step into the vacancy left by Wood’s departure.

23. Rams — Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: He was one of the combine’s stars after blazing a 4.38 40-yard dash. But aside from the speed, he thrives in press coverage and isn’t afraid to hit. Good fit for a team that opted not to franchise CB Trumaine Johnson a third time.

24. Panthers — Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford: He’s strong (combine-high 42 reps on the bench), scheme versatile and highly intelligent after graduating early with a double major. Phillips also comes with an ever-revving motor for a team that will probably be replacing Star Lotulelei.

25. Titans — Sony Michel, RB, Georgia: Derrick Henry will take over as the primary back in 2018, but Tennessee could use a shiftier outside runner who’s likely to be more of a factor in the passing game. Michel, who averaged 8 yards per touch last season, seems to be in the mold of Alvin Kamara.

26. Falcons — Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: Atlanta’s roster isn’t lacking much. But a new slot receiver would help Matt Ryan and, perhaps, Julio Jones if Kirk can make an immediate impact in the short passing game with his sub-4.5 speed.

27. Saints — Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama: Kenny Vaccaro’s disappointing tenure is coming to an end. Harrison is the instinctive, reliable tackler Vaccaro rarely was and could be another nice addition to a blossoming secondary.

28. Steelers — Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: He has excellent ball skills (8 INTs in 2017). None of Pittsburgh’s corners had more than two picks, and the pass defense as a whole still looked too vulnerable in big games.

29. Jaguars — DJ Moore, WR, Maryland: Jacksonville opted not to tag Allen Robinson, increasing the need for them to reload at receiver with Marqise Lee also poised to leave. Moore is one of the risers coming out of the combine after posting a 4.42 40, the kind of speed that could also create space for the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.

30. Vikings — Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: For a team that will be making some kind of re-investment at quarterback (Cousins? Case Keenum?), improved O-line play is probably imperative. McGlinchey represents a nice value and would allow Mike Remmers to kick inside to guard.

31. Patriots — Leighton Vander Esch, OLB, Boise State: A long (6-4, 256), athletic player who would be a nice addition to a New England defense that obviously needs help given its most recent performance.

32. Eagles — Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh: Jason Peters is 36 and only lasted seven games last season. Philadelphia would be wise to begin eyeing a next-gen blind side bodyguard for Carson Wentz.

***

Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

NFL teams finally get to see QB hopefuls at combine

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — This year’s deep class of quarterbacks features as many as a half dozen first-round NFL prospects full of hope, hype and hazard.

There’s Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and questions about the Heisman winner’s size and stature. A lot of teams would love UCLA’s Josh Rosen for his skills and strength but wonder if he’s a good fit in the locker room and their organization.

Wyoming’s Josh Allen has enviable size but faces questions about his regression last season. USC’s Sam Darnold has to answer queries about his ball security and why he’s not throwing at the NFL combine this weekend like the other prospects.

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson , the 2016 Heisman winner, needs to prove he’s a better pro prospect throwing the ball than catching it. And teams wonder if Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph can transition to the pro offense after operating exclusively out of the shotgun.

Will these guys be the next Carson Wentz, who ignited the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl run in just his second season before getting hurt and rooting on Nick Foles from the sideline?

Or will they be the next Paxton Lynch, the 2016 first-round flop whose inability to grasp the complexities of the pro game has Broncos GM John Elway once again searching for answers at quarterback?

Elway has found it difficult to land a franchise quarterback from the college ranks like he did in free agency with Peyton Manning six years ago.

Last year, the Broncos cycled through his draft picks Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Lynch during the team’s worst season in decades.

“Believe me, I’m not done swinging and missing,” said Elway, who owns the fifth pick in this year’s draft. “Misses don’t bother me. We just have to figure out a way to get it right.”

Elway could go after a veteran again in free agency such as Kirk Cousins. But the Broncos staff coached Mayfield and Allen at the Senior Bowl and this week and they plan to bring in several of the other top prospects for visits leading up to the draft on April 26.

“There is a possibility of some really good quarterbacks coming out of this draft,” Elway said.

Maybe not like his own class in 1983, which produced three Hall of Famers in himself, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, but this year’s crop of quarterbacks is filled with intrigue and promise.

And plenty of questions.

Among them:

TALL ORDER

Is Mayfield too short? He measured in just over 6 feet tall with a hand size of 9¼ inches, under the standard targets of 6-2 and 9½ inches.

Elway, for one, isn’t concerned, about Mayfield’s measurements.

“I think that (stigma) has been broken,” Elway said. “You’ve got Drew Brees — they’ve proven that you can do it. He’s obviously very much a competitor. He’s had a great college career and won the Heisman Trophy. He’s proved he can play.”

Nor is Elway turned off by Mayfield’s crossing the line at times.

He was arrested last year and charged with disorderly conduct, public intoxication and resisting arrest. After the Kansas Jayhawks wouldn’t shake his hand, he was caught on camera grabbing his crotch and swearing at the Kansas sideline.

“A lot of times you get tied up in the emotions of the situation and where he is. I like to see a guy with that kind of passion,” Elway said.

HOT WATER

Rosen’s time in Westwood was defined as much by his proclivity for creating headlines away from the field.

A viral photo showed a hot tub he brought into his dorm room. Another photo showed Rosen playing golf and wearing a headband that disparaged then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. When UCLA announced its 15-year, $280-million deal with Under Armour, Rosen used the big contract to mock the NCAA’s nonprofit status on social media.

Questions have arisen about how well Rosen will get along with his new teammates in the NFL, but two of his Bruins teammates also at the combine quickly dismissed those concerns.

“Josh came in No. 1 high school guy, a little cocky, of course you hear off-campus stuff about him, but as the years went on he really matured,” tackle Kolton Miller said. “He’s really well-rounded, he doesn’t try to be more than what he has to be, a really good leader. I don’t really have anything negative to say about him.”

Neither does center Scott Quessenberry, who said the negative rap of Rosen is unfair “because of the type of guy that he is and the type of stand-up human being that he is and the type of pro that he’s going to be.”

“He’s a great dude, I love hanging around him and being with him, and whoever gets him is extremely lucky. They’re getting a once in a millennium talent, in my opinion.”

CATCH AND THROW

Some teams want to see the dual-threat Jackson working out the wide receivers this week and not just slinging it around with the quarterbacks. But Jackson never caught a single pass at Louisville, where he threw for 9,043 yards and 69 touchdowns and ran for 4,132 yards and 50 TDs in 38 games.

“Is there a quarterback that’s gone and been a wide receiver successfully?” Elway asked.

Not many. Bert Emmanuel, Kordell Stewart, Antwaan Randle El, Terrelle Pryor.

“I think if he’s going to make it,” Elway said, “he’s making it as a quarterback in the right situation. He’s explosive.”

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

NFL combine begins with deep group of quarterbacks

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jon Gruden is back from the broadcast booth and the highest-paid coach in NFL history.

Unlike his colleague, Matt Patricia didn’t balk at leaving Bill Belichick’s brigade.

Andy Reid is in the midst of another major roster shake-up and his protege, Doug Pederson, is basking in Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl triumph.

All are in Indianapolis at the NFL combine this week hoping to better their chances of winning in 2018.

Top college prospects, including a group of quarterbacks that could produce five first-round draft picks, will spend four days getting poked and prodded, tested and timed.

GMs and coaches will do their best to get to know them off the field as well, either in formal 15-minute interviews or during a mixed zone after their physical assessments.

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The NFL descends upon Indianapolis this week for the scouting combine, where teams will get another up-close look at the top draft prospects, including a quarterback class that could feature as many as five first-round picks.

Saturday’s workouts will generate much buzz, but these passers already must face the notions that teams have of them.

After poring over hours of game film of each passer, scouts, coaches and general managers have already identified their strengths and weaknesses.

Yet greater challenges remain in projecting how quarterbacks fit into specific schemes and gaining a clearer understanding of these young men as people.

Here’s a look at a pressing question facing each of the top quarterbacks in team interviews.

Josh Rosen, UCLA: “Why do you play?”

Regarded by many as the draft’s most complete quarterback, the 6-4, 210-pounder threw for 3,717 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls him “the best pure passer I have seen in several years.” But teams want to know more about Rosen’s mental makeup. Some talent evaluators perceive him as a slightly immature, laid-back player with questions surrounding his fire and toughness. Durability is also a concern, as he suffered a shoulder injury in 2016 and two concussions in 2017. Teams want to know if he can he take a big hit on the next level, get back up and keep slinging.

Sam Darnold, USC: “Why so many turnovers?”

The 6-4, 225-pound Darnold, who will not throw at the combine per a report by ESPN, might have the most upside of any of his peers. The 20-year-old, however, is still somewhat of a work in progress. He threw for 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, but was also responsible for 22 turnovers, including 13 interceptions. Coaching can help to some degree, but ball security has a lot to do with instincts and decision making. Some of those habits are hard to break. Talent evaluators will want to hear Darnold take ownership for the struggles and explain how he’s working to improve.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: “Do you understand what comes with being the face of a franchise?”

Although undersized at just over 6-0 and 216 pounds, Mayfield has a body of work that might be unparalleled in this class. The Heisman Trophy winner passed for 14,607 yards, 131 touchdowns and just 30 interceptions for his four-year college career. Last season, he threw 41 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. There’s no questioning his determination. He walked on both at Texas Tech and Oklahoma. He’s a fighter and commands the respect of his teammates.

Some talent evaluators view Mayfield as the most NFL-ready of any passer in this class, but he’ll be under scrutiny for his past actions, including last February’s arrest on public intoxication and fleeing charges as well as a November incident in which he taunted Kansas players and grabbed his crotch. Fair or not, he now is having to shoot down comparisons to former Texas A&M and Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, who only lasted two years in the NFL. As the face of an NFL franchise, Mayfield can’t afford continual off-field missteps.

Josh Allen, Wyoming: “How do you explain the accuracy issues and last year’s regression?”

Comparisons to Carson Wentz are only natural for the strong-armed quarterback, especially given that he played for the same coach as the Philadelphia Eagles star (though at different schools) and possesses similar physical traits. But Allen has work to do, primarily on his accuracy after completing just 56% of his passes the last two seasons. He topped the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2016, but managed just 1,812 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in his final college season while missing two games with a shoulder injury. NFL insiders are befuddled by his drop in production. Yes, he lost some productive weapons. But he should have performed better, and teams will want him to provide accountability rather than excuses.

Lamar Jackson. Louisville: “Can you play quarterback on this level?”

The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner recorded more than 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons, with 96 touchdowns in that span. But Jackson has to fight a major stereotype: great athlete whose skills don’t project to long-term success as an NFL passer. That view very well could keep Jackson out of the first round. Fit is extremely important. Jackson is going to need to go to a team whose coach and offensive coordinator will tailor their scheme to accent his strengths, much like Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan overhauled their offense to help Robert Griffin III.

Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: “Can you transition to a pro-style offense?”

The 6-5, 230-pound Rudolph could be a first-round dark horse. He’s coming off a career year with 4,904 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His size and deep passing experience will be attractive, and the desire to work and improve. But he ran a spread offense, operating exclusively out of the shotgun, and he’s never called plays in a huddle. Adjusting to an NFL system from that starting point leads to growing pains. Those close to Rudolph say he’s well aware of the areas where he must improve. That realistic view of himself and an ability to convey his hunger to learn will help him in interviews.

Franchise tag player options for all 32 NFL teams

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   Beginning Tuesday, NFL teams have a two-week window (ending March 6) to place a franchise or transition tag on one of their potential free agents. After assessing the pool of expiring contracts, here’s the most logical player — if there is one, based on tag values relative to positions and team needs — for each club to franchise:

Arizona Cardinals — none: Their precious cap space must be preserved for pursuit of a quarterback, since none currently occupy the roster.

Atlanta Falcons — K Matt Bryant: He turns 43 soon but has been so intrinsic to this team’s success over the years. The Falcons don’t have much cap space, but they also don’t have many free agents to strongly consider re-signing aside from DT Dontari Poe. But committing around $5 million to tag Bryant (maybe as a preliminary step to a longer contract) passes the smell test.

Baltimore Ravens — none: Ryan Jensen developed into one of the league’s better snappers in 2017. But $15 million is too much for a center, even one who’s only 26.

Buffalo Bills — CB E.J. Gaines: He quietly turned in a strong year at a premium position and will only be 26 at the start of next season. Keeping him teamed with Tre’Davious White, at least in the short term, isn’t a bad option.

Carolina Panthers — G Andrew Norwell: He’s coming off an all-pro campaign. But giving a guard left tackle money — a dilemma the franchise tag creates because all offensive linemen are grouped together salary-wise — is hard to stomach. Might be smarter to put the transition tag on Norwell, 26, and see what happens for a team that currently has around $20 million in cap space.

Chicago Bears — CB Kyle Fuller: A year ago, the team declined the 2014 first rounder’s fifth-year option. But he finally showed ample signs he’s developing into a front-line corner, his 22 pass break-ups tied for second in the league. The Bears might be wise to give Fuller an extended look while trying to keep an ascendant defense intact.

Cincinnati Bengals — none: TE Tyler Eifert is a nice player but just too fragile to guarantee an eight-figure salary.

Cleveland Browns — none: RB Isaiah Crowell was their leading rusher but is no more than a platoon player.

Dallas Cowboys — DE Demarcus Lawrence: His 14 ½ sacks in 2017 trailed only Arizona’s Chandler Jones. However Lawrence managed just nine combined in his first three seasons, so it almost behooves Dallas to put him in a prove-it scenario before committing long term.

Denver Broncos — none: With Von Miller busily recruiting Kirk Cousins in the social media sphere, this team needs to clear cap space, not eat into it.

Detroit Lions — DE Ziggy Ansah: Consistency and durability have been issues, but Detroit probably can’t afford to let a guy who had a dozen sacks last year walk.

Green Bay Packers — none: No reason to use the tag and not enough cap space to burn anyway.

Houston Texans — none: Given their top draft picks belong to Cleveland, they need to wisely earmark nearly $60 million in cap space — and that definitely means no tag.

Indianapolis Colts — none: After reaching a new deal with 45-year-old K Adam Vinatieri on Thursday, utilizing a tag no longer makes sense. There are far more talented players shaking loose whom GM Chris Ballard should be targeting with the more than $70 million he can bring to the negotiating table.

Jacksonville Jaguars — WR Allen Robinson: An ACL injury limited him to one game and one catch in 2017. But the 24-year-old has far more upside than fellow free agent Marqise Lee, and Robinson’s 6-3 frame provides some margin for error for occasionally scattershot QB Blake Bortles.

Kansas City Chiefs — none: Even if they had sufficient cap room for a tag, they don’t have a free agent worthy of one.

Los Angeles Chargers — none: Be nice to have a guy like S Tre Boston back, but not for anything near $11 million.

Los Angeles Rams — S Lamarcus Joyner: WR Sammy Watkins is a bigger name, but Joyner was a far more productive player in 2017 … not to mention safeties are around $5 million cheaper to franchise than wideouts.

**Miami Dolphins — WR Jarvis Landry: The man who led the NFL in receptions last year with 112 was officially franchised Tuesday night. Landry is a slightly curious choice given he averaged just 8.8 yards per catch in 2017 (all those grabs didn’t even amount to a 1,000-yard season), and Miami has DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills under contract. But Landry’s undeniable production (400 receptions in four seasons) apparently sealed his case.

Minnesota Vikings — QB Case Keenum: The NFC North champs are in a fascinating position, with nearly $50 million in cap space and most of the roster locked down — with the exception of an experienced quarterback. Tagging Keenum might seem like a no-brainer. However Minnesota will be in a tricky spot if they intend to pursue Kirk Cousins, especially if Keenum were to predictably sign a tag that would be worth well north of $20 million.

New England Patriots — WR Danny Amendola: His regular-season production (61 catches, 659 yards) doesn’t warrant anything in the neighborhood of $16 million. But with WR Julian Edelman still rehabbing a knee injury, and TE Rob Gronkowski hedging on his future, the Pats may be compelled to tag postseason star Amendola as they did slot man Wes Welker six years ago. LT Nate Solder and CB Malcolm Butler would seem to be more deserving, but Solder’s contract has a no-tag stipulation, while it’s clear New England and Butler are headed for a divorce.

New Orleans Saints — none: They finally go into an offseason when they’re not right up against the cap. Unfortunately, most of New Orleans’ $30-plus million  savings will probably go to QB Drew Brees, whose contract spares him from being tagged.

New York Giants — none: When you go 3-13, it’s probably because of a dearth of franchise players.

New York Jets — none: They’ve got plenty of cap room, but no players worthy of a balloon payment. Better to hope useful players like QB Josh McCown and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins return on reasonable deals.

Oakland Raiders — none: Be nice to have a guy like ILB NaVorro Bowman back, and perhaps veteran S Reggie Nelson … but only on team-friendly terms.

Philadelphia Eagles — none: Retaining contributors like RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Nigel Bradham and TE Trey Burton is usually preferable, but those are often the types of players other teams overpay for hoping to catch some Super Bowl lightning in a bottle.

Pittsburgh Steelers — RB Le’Veon Bell: After being franchised for $12.1 million in 2017, the price tag for the two-time all-pro goes up to $14.5 million this year — and GM Kevin Colbert will have to do some payroll slashing to make room for that figure. Still only 26, Bell is probably worth it, though Pittsburgh would be wise to make another tag a precursor to a long-term deal or risk a costly Kirk Cousins-esque escalation in the future.

San Francisco 49ers — none: With apologies to RB Carlos Hyde and S Eric Reid, there are better ways for the Niners to distribute their cap war chest even after securing QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

Seattle Seahawks — DT Sheldon Richardson: TE Jimmy Graham might also be a consideration after catching a team-high 10 TDs last season (plus the fact a tight end’s tag, about $10 million, is among the lowest). But Richardson, 27, is four years younger and seems to be in Seatte’s long-term plans even with a significant roster reshuffle apparently afoot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — none: They don’t have anyone who merits a tag, which is another way of saying they have plenty of holes to fill and a quarterback who will likely soon command a megadeal.

Tennessee Titans — none: They signed Ryan Succop to a five-year, $20 million deal Tuesday, further proof that tagging kickers is probably the most economical route. Nice-but-expendable types like DE DaQuan Jones, G Josh Kline and ILB Avery Williamson should be allowed to test the market.

Washington Redskins — none: The drama would be delightful if they tried to construct a tag-and-trade scenario around QB Kirk Cousins. But that approach seems way too vengeful, fraught with potential disaster and would force the ‘Skins to reduce their spending power by more than $34 million to merely hold Cousins hostage.

**Already tagged

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Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

NFL rebuild rankings: Which teams are in best shape for extended future?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   With the NFL season over, every team can consider itself a contender again — for now.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ successful run to Super Bowl LII (after consecutive losing seasons) should serve as inspiration to organizations that found themselves home this January. Some have the ingredients to make a similar surge next season, while certain playoff teams could be in for a fall.

Here’s our look at all 32 teams, ranked from best to worst on their outlook for the extended future:

1. Eagles: The underdog act is over. With a 25-year-old, MVP-caliber quarterback in Carson Wentz on the mend, Philadelphia has a robust core eyeing to build off the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. The Eagles have a tight salary-cap outlook in 2018 but face minimal losses from a group with few weaknesses.

2. Vikings: Yes, Minnesota has a Mall of America-sized hole at quarterback with Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford set to hit free agency. But with plenty of spending room and an enviable roster, the Vikings should be able to find a satisfying resolution. Perhaps no other team is as good at developing homegrown stars, as there’s outstanding talent at the skill positions and throughout the NFL’s top-ranked defense.

3. Patriots: Tom vs. Time is a battle the NFL’s latest MVP intends on winning, even if his opponent is undefeated. As long as Brady shows no signs of slowing — and coach Bill Belichick remains at the helm — New England shouldn’t slip far. TE Rob Gronkowski’s non-committal remarks about his future will keep many on edge until he reveals his plans, and the defense also needs to be addressed after being repeatedly sliced in the Super Bowl.

4. Falcons: They might be poised to pull off what Minnesota fell short of by becoming the first team to play in the Super Bowl as a host. OC Steve Sarkisian still must prove he can capitalize on his array of weapons, but the pieces are all there. Don’t overlook breakout star LB Deion Jones and what might be the NFL’s next great defense.

5. Jaguars: Is this The Good Place for Jacksonville? A defense loaded at every level and top-ranked run game led by Leonard Fournette indicates the Jags are here to stay. But keeping Blake Bortles under center, which the team appears content to do for another year, seems like a substantial limitation.

6. Rams: There’s no better young troika than coach of the year Sean McVay, 32, offensive player of the year Todd Gurley, 23, and defensive player of the year Aaron Donald, 26. Taking the next step, however, depends on the continued development of QB Jared Goff. Potential salary-cap sacrifices and losses in free agency could send the defense in the wrong direction.

7. Saints: Once a veteran-dependent group, New Orleans has given itself a rush of vitality with a sterling rookie class led by RB Alvin Kamara and CB Marshon Lattimore. Yet this is still Drew Brees’ show, and the quarterback’s expected return should give New Orleans all the confidence it needs to make another serious push.

8. Steelers: Despite boasting a league-best eight Pro Bowlers, Pittsburgh hasn’t done enough to close the gap on New England. The often deadly offense can still run cold at times, while LB Ryan Shazier’s injury revealed defensive shortcomings. Keeping Le’Veon Bell is essential, though striking an agreement might not be easy (or cheap).

9. Packers:  After grumbling about the loss of his quarterbacks coach, Aaron Rodgers returned to a more upbeat tone by noting his last comeback from a broken collarbone resulted in an MVP campaign. So long as the franchise centerpiece stays healthy, the Pack should be able to run with the elite despite deficiencies elsewhere. Joe Philbin could help Rodgers and the offense get back to top form in his second stint in Green Bay, but Mike Pettine could be the real boon in the staff shake-up for a perennially uninspiring defense.

10. Cowboys: Is Dallas done with drama for a while after the Ezekiel Elliott suspension saga? Even if Dez Bryant’s looming contract ordeal is ironed out, it’s clear that Dak Prescott needs more help from his receiving corps. DE Demarcus Lawrence is a promising piece who deserves a hefty contract in free agency, but the defense is still disproportionately reliant on LB Sean Lee.

11. Chargers: They proved they won’t settle for second banana in Los Angeles. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram constitute the NFL’s best young pass-rushing duo, while the fourth-ranked offense remains in good hands with Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon. But it’s past time to fix the farcical kicking woes and porous run defense.

12. Texans: The top of the roster is sterling, as Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt provide tantalizing possibilities as they mend from injuries, while DE Jadeveon Clowney and WR DeAndre Hopkins also stand among the best at their respective positions. Yet the offensive line gave up 54 sacks, and the secondary was burned for 30 touchdowns. Without a pick in the first two rounds, Houston might have to wait for remedies.

13. Seahawks: Ticking ever closer to a reset? Still, it’s unclear exactly what form that might take. With CB Richard Sherman rehabbing a torn Achilles and Pete Carroll casting doubt on the futures of S Kam Chancellor and DE Cliff Avril — theories of DE Michael Bennett’s departure have also been floated — the vaunted defense looks like it could be in for a major shift. Russell Wilson’s output (he had a hand in all but one of Seattle’s offensive touchdowns) was nothing short of heroic, but that formula ultimately proved untenable.

14. Chiefs: Let ‘er rip, Pat Mahomes. After Kansas City sent Alex Smith to Washington following a career year, last year’s big-armed first rounder should have free rein of an explosive offense. His first season as a starter might be a facsimile of his Texas Tech days, as the defense is still in bad shape (though the return of Eric Berry and acquisition of Kendall Fuller will boost the secondary).

15. 49ers: San Francisco has an impressive setup after closing the year on an NFL-best five-game win streak under Jimmy Garoppolo, who is returning on a record five-year contract. The full breakout might be a year off, however, as Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch continue to rebuild the roster. Expected to be among the teams with the most cap space, the Niners could choose to make a big splash in free agency.

16. Titans: Tennessee was the only playoff team to make a coaching change. Whether the Titans picked the right replacement in Mike Vrabel, who had just one year of coordinator experience in Houston, remains unclear. Marcus Mariota regressed in 2017 but could also use a more creative playbook and assistance from his supporting cast after he threw 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

17. Panthers: Between the expected sale of the franchise by Jerry Richardson and interim GM Marty Hurney being put on paid leave amid allegations from his ex-wife, few clubs face more uncertainty. And that’s to say nothing of the changes made on Ron Rivera’s staff, which will have two new coordinators, including Norv Turner taking over the offense.

18. Broncos: John Elway is in the batter’s box, waiting to take his big swing for a quarterback. Whatever move he makes might not be a cure-all for a group that underwent an eight-game losing streak last season. But Von Miller and the rest of the defense help position Denver to make a big leap if a competent passer is obtained.

19. Raiders: The Silver & Black aren’t waiting for their Vegas move to put on a show. Jon Gruden’s return raises both the team’s profile and expectations. Though many will focus on how he handles Derek Carr after last year’s struggles, the defense also needs to become more than the Khalil Mack solo act.

20. Redskins: Even after landing Alex Smith, Washington still doesn’t know how to find a graceful end to the Kirk Cousins saga. Smith should settle in nicely with coach Jay Gruden’s offense, though might undergo the same struggles Cousins did in developing a rapport with Josh Doctson and the rest of the receiving corps. Better luck on the injury front could provide a spark in 2018, but more consistency is needed.

21. Ravens: After spending most of the last five years in a post-Super Bowl stasis, Baltimore is headed for major changes. GM Ozzie Newsome is entering his last season, and John Harbaugh has been given a playoff mandate. For now, the story remains the same, as a formidable defense will be tasked with carrying Joe Flacco and his second-rate supporting cast.

22. Lions: Leading Detroit isn’t rocket science, which new coach Matt Patricia once studied. But notching the franchise’s first postseason win since the 1991 season might be similarly vexing. While Matthew Stafford provides a nice foundation, Patricia will have to find answers for a lackluster pass rush and long-dormant run game.

23. Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald is the last link to the most successful run in Arizona’s history, and it’s still not clear what his 2018 plans are. RB David Johnson’s return should re-balance the offense, while the sixth-ranked defense has cornerstones in sack king Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson, who’s now seven-for-seven on Pro Bowls in his career. With a murky outlook at quarterback and along the offensive line, however, Steve Wilks’ first year as head coach is shaping up to be rocky.

24. Bills: Ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought shows they’re in good hands with Sean McDermott. But even returning to postseason in the near future could prove difficult, as Buffalo lacks building blocks. Change at quarterback is likely afoot, and the offense needs to find other weapons beyond LeSean McCoy, who turns 30 in July.

25. Bears: Chicago is trying the Sean McVay plan by pairing new coach Matt Nagy with Mitchell Trubisky after the quarterback’s uneven rookie campaign. Retaining Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator constitutes a win, but the Bears’ rebuild looks more like a steady climb rather than rocket-fueled ascension.

26. Dolphins: Hard to assess a team that both bedeviled the Patriots yet was on the business end of a 40-0 drumming from the Ravens. Miami’s true self likely lies somewhere between those polarities, though dropping eight of their last ten was a discouraging trend. Ryan Tannehill’s return could keep them afloat, but it’s hard to see how this group gets much better given the lack of wiggle room on the salary cap.

27. Buccaneers: Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter are entering a defining season after their partnership showed signs of maxing out after a disappointing 5-11 campaign. Even if the offense gets back on track, the pass rush needs substantial help, and the secondary might undergo significant changes.

28. Bengals: Status quo is quite the surprise given a divorce from Marvin Lewis seemed inevitable. The Bengals actually boast intriguing young talent — RB Joe Mixon, CB William Jackson III and DE Carl Lawson are shaping up as high-level starters — but progress will be hard to come by until the offense line is sorted out.

29. Giants: Pat Shurmur’s measured approach seems ideal for what was a volatile locker room. Despite lingering questions about Eli Manning’s longevity and Odell Beckham’s contract, the G-Men have the tools to rebound quickly. But limited cap space will prevent them from spending away their problems.

30. Colts: So … who wants this job after Josh McDaniels bailed? If Andrew Luck heals, the franchise quarterback could again carry an otherwise lacking roster. But this is a team undone by the pass rush on both ends, as no offense gave up more sacks (56) and just one defense tallied fewer (25).

31. Browns: With cap space expected to exceed $110 million and five picks in the first two rounds, including the No. 1 and 4 overall selections, it’s time for new GM John Dorsey to capitalize on a stockpile of assets. There is some emerging talent on the roster, especially on defense. But Hue Jackson has exhausted his excuses after a 1-31 run.

32. Jets: This won’t be a fun situation to step into, even for the next quarterback. Perhaps no team is more bereft of talent, though last year’s rookies represent a step in the right direction. Smart drafting, which hasn’t occurred consistently for some time, remains essential for long-term building, especially given New York’s failed free agency forays in recent years.

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Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz

NFL: Spring football could work, but XFL2 not the answer

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Vince McMahon is resuscitating the XFL.

OK, let’s get the bad jokes out of the way: Are some teams going to be wearing masks and representing parts unknown? Will the hook-and-ladder play involve smashing someone with a real ladder?

The XFL was a “colossal failure” the first time McMahon tried it — his words — and there’s every reason to believe XFL2 will meet a similar fate.

But a spring football league, done the right way, could work.

And, no, we’re not kidding around.

The United States Football League came up with the most feasible concept back in the 1980s, only to crumble after just three seasons because of out-of-control spending and a suicidal push by owners such as Donald Trump to compete directly against the NFL .

But the USFL might still be around today if it had stuck to its original concept, which was to serve as more of a complement to the NFL than a direct competitor.

The timing is ripe for another attempt.

While the economy is booming and football remains the nation’s most popular sport, the NFL is contending with shrinking TV ratings, empty seats and a lingering debate over players kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice. For the first time in decades, there are actually some cracks in the league’s armor.

Clearly, those issues figured into McMahon’s planned re-launch of the XFL in 2020 .

“As far as this league is concerned, it will have nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with social issues,” he said. “That’s what the fans want. When they tune in to a game, they don’t want to deal with political issues. They want to watch good football.”

Good football will likely be the fatal flaw in McMahon’s new venture, just as it was for the original XFL. While the risque cheerleaders and close ties to wrestling brought plenty of much-deserved ridicule, it was the amateurish quality of play that ultimately caused its downfall. As Bob Costas memorably observed, it was “mediocre high school football” combined “with a tawdry strip club.”

Since McMahon’s new XFL will follow the same single-entity plan — he’ll be the sole owner of the eight-team league — there’s unlikely to be nearly enough money to lure any recognizable names, unless Tim Tebow (yes, he came up during the announcement Thursday) decides to make a football comeback.

But an updated version of the USFL concept would have a real chance at succeeding during the spring and summer, football’s traditional offseason.

Here’s a few ideas:

— Start with 10 or 12 teams, split between major NFL cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; those that have lost teams (San Diego, St. Louis and soon-to-be Oakland); and untapped markets with big league stadiums (San Antonio comes to mind).

— Restrict ownership to those who not only have deep pockets, but are totally committed to the concept (i.e., not simply trying to turn their investment into a merger with the NFL). Point out the relative bargain of owning a team in the new league compared to, say, the Carolina Panthers, whose selling price will surely exceed $2 billion. Maybe Mark Cuban would be interested in a Dallas franchise. Reach out to Oprah Winfrey about a Chicago team.

— Don’t get into a bidding war with the NFL over players. Focus heavily on scouting and development, which means pursuing lower-level pros who might thrive in a bigger role and college stars projected to go in the later rounds of the NFL draft. Always be on the lookout for someone like 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, the subject of wildly varying draft projections, who might have a better chance at playing time in a new league. And let’s not forget: Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed.

— Line up a traditional TV deal to provide financial stability, perhaps some combination of a major network and a newer, sports-themed cable outlet such as NBCSN or Fox Sports 1. But also be on the cutting edge of subscription services, mobile streaming and other innovative conduits that appeal to a younger audience.

In essence, follow the model laid out by the late David Dixon, the New Orleans businessman whose longtime push for an out-of-season league finally came to fruition with the launch of the USFL in 1983.

Looking back, that first season was a rousing success in many ways. The Denver Gold averaged more than 41,000 fans. Overall attendance was roughly in line with the hoped-for 25,000 per game. TV ratings on ABC and then-fledgling ESPN actually exceeded projections. The quality of play was solid.

But the seeds of the USFL’s downfall were already in motion. When the New Jersey Generals skirted the salary cap to lure Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker away from Georgia, it only led more teams to dole out big bucks in pursuit of stars. That, in turn, led to huge financial losses. Dixon wisely walked away after that inaugural season.

In the end, the USFL’s most enduring legacy was the $3 judgment it “won” in an antitrust suit against the NFL, a ruling that finished off the league in 1986 before it carried out a Trump-backed move from spring to fall.

No one since has made a serious attempt at a spring football league.

A revived XFL certainly doesn’t qualify.

But someone out there should heed McMahon’s words.

“Football is America’s favorite sport,” he said. “We’ve got seven months of no football on the gridiron and 70 million fans. Why not now? Now is the perfect opportunity.”

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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