The order of this mock draft was determined by Mike Clay's post-draft win projections released earlier this month. With one exception. I swapped the Dolphins and Raiders at the top of the board.
With Josh Rosen in town on an affordable rookie contract, I don't believe the Dolphins would take a quarterback 1.1, and I don't think they should. I also don't believe the Dolphins will finish with the league's worst record. Consider it a projected trade if you like.
1. Raiders - Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa
I’m already tired of the arm strength narrative with Tua. Stop. When a quarterback prospect with elite-elite accuracy, top-notch mobility and a tantalizing dichotomy of composure and gamble enters the league, you don’t begin the conversation with “He doesn’t have a howitzer.” That would be like a music critic putting the sentence “She can’t freestyle” in a review of Adele’s first album.
This pick would give Jon Gruden the Steve Young-esque West Coast quarterback he prefers, allow Mike Mayock to choose the face of his franchise, seriously geek up the Las Vegas fanbase, give ESPN’s draft crew hours of talking points comparing Tagovailoa to the original left-handed dual-threat Alabama quarterback in Raiders lore, Ken Stabler*, and allow the Raiders to scoop up a draft pick by trading Derek Carr.
*If this happened, Tua would have to be given a nickname befitting of “The Snake.” You’ve got 11 months to improve on these ideas: "The Rake" (it’s Vegas, after all!), "The Serpent" or "The Fryin’ Hawaiian". And speaking of Vegas nicknames: If Vic Beasley needs a change of scenery next year, let’s bring him west with the moniker Vig Beasley. I don't ask for much.
2. Dolphins - Iowa EDGE AJ Epenesa
Believe the hype, folks. I’ve seen the monster. And the monster is real. As the NFL Draft media’s foremost consumer of Iowa football, I can tell you that the only complaint Hawkeyes fans have had about AJ Epenesa is that the coaching staff didn't use him more as a true freshman and sophomore.
A five-star recruit out of Illinois, Epenesa is the highest-rated prospect to sign with Iowa during Kirk Ferentz’s 20-year career (my dear friend Elliott, a pedantic editor who lives in Brooklyn, clarifies that technically OLB Kyle Williams in the 2004 class was rated slightly higher -- but Williams was ruled academically ineligible before his freshman season began, transferred to Purdue, and is currently in the middle of a 47-year prison sentence -- so, um, yeah... let's just give the title to Expenses!).
Epenesa earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last year. He led the conference in sacks (10.5, the most by a Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn in 2009). He also led Iowa in TFL (16.5), and added four forced fumbles, four pass break-ups, and one fumble recovery.
Epenesa earned a 90.0+ (elite) PFF grade last year. He's collected a total of 80 pressures over two seasons in college. Despite all that, get this: Epenesa has NEVER started a game in his career! Like, ever! He's posted superior stats to Nick Bosa through two years on campus despite playing 159 fewer snaps alongside inferior talent (897 for Bosa, 738 for Epenesa).
Epenesa only played in 48-percent of Iowa’s defensive snaps last year. With standout veterans Anthony Nelson (fourth-round pick of the Bucs) and Parker Hesse (UDFA camp invite for the Chiefs) installed at end, Epenesa was forced to come in off the bench. Basically, Iowa wanted Hesse setting the edge against the run on early downs and for Epenesa to enter on passing downs, while sprinkling in breathers for Nelson.
There’s old-school, and then there’s Kirk Ferentz. But with Ferentz’s beloved vets off to the NFL, the time has come to greatly increase Epenesa's workload. The freak athlete is no longer a youngster. Now he’s the vet. Good luck trying to block him, Big 10!
Epenesa is a freak athlete who bends the edge and converts speed to power at an extremely advanced level for his age. Kid is strong as an ox (see below). But that's not what he's known for. What he's known for is his dog-on-a-bone relentlessness. Ace Iowa beat writer Scott Dochterman has compared Epenesa's no-kill-switch-pursuit style to former Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, who famously played each down like it was his last.
When this conversation comes up, J.J. Watt's name is inevitably evoked. Epenesa had 3.5 more sacks as a two-year part-timer than Watt did in his two years as a starter at Wisconsin (Watt also had 36.5 TFL). I'm not saying, I'm just saying.
We already know that Epenesa is a touched-by-God's-hand pass-rusher. What we need for him to do next is improve against the run and prove that he can play the style he prefers to play (with his hair on fire) while out there on all three downs.
It's not that Epenesa struggles against the run -- it's just that our sample size with him in those situations is so small as to be worth discarding. We'll get a full verdict on that aspect of his game now that Hesse is gone. But Epenesa's country strength, athleticism and effort level all suggest he's gonna be just fine in that phase of the game, too.
And fun fact!: Epenesa’s dad — who grew up in American Samoa and played for Hayden Fry at Iowa, the primary reason his five-star son ended up a Hawkeye — is named Eppy Epenesa. Eppy is short for Epenesa. Fry called Epenesa Epenesa “Repeat.” Gotta love football coach humor. Dad humor with a splash of Tabasco and a pinch of tobacco.
3. Redskins - Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy
How better to celebrate the one-year anniversary of drafting QB Dwayne Haskins than to go out and purchase him Odell Beckham 2.0? That comp has become so ubiquitous that I feel a knee-jerk reaction to want to disagree with it.
But when you see a sub-200 pound SEC receiver with high-octane athleticism, ludicrous body control (check out the video below) and polished ball skills, your mind really only goes one place. Jeudy probably has an inch on OBJ as well (he’s listed as 6’1 but will likely measure in around 6’0; Beckham is 5’11).
NFL fans who don’t watch much college football: I implore you, make an exception this year, if only for Alabama and Clemson. We’ve got a young Steve Young throwing to a young Odell Beckham, and the Crimson Tide also still have multiple running backs who were No. 1 in their recruiting classes in addition to a stupidly stocked receiver room.
Jeudy is the odds-on favorite to repeat as the Biletnikoff winner, but he’s going to have a fight on his hands. I don’t know that college football has ever boasted the receiving talent that we’re going to see next season.
4. Bucs - Georgia OT Andrew Thomas
A year from now, I’m not certain how the Bucs are going to look. But no matter what, I know that they’ll have use for an elite left tackle prospect. And that’s Thomas. A 320-pound stud athlete, Thomas has stood out each of the past two seasons on lines that also featured Lamont Gaillard and (in 2017) Isaiah Wynn.
Thomas kicked to left tackle to replace Wynn last year and acquitted himself quite well. His career progression has gone similarly to Jonah Williams. Thomas started at right tackle as a freshman before moving to the opposite side as a sophomore to take over for a player who’d moved on to the NFL (in Jonah’s case, that was Cam Robinson).
A consensus 2018 All-American, Thomas has started 28 of 29 career games, only missing one with a sprained knee. Thomas has Jonah beat in both length and athleticism, so he isn’t going to be followed by the same tired “he should move inside” narrative. And per PFF’s grades, Thomas (80.6) was better than Jonah (76.9) as a sophomore. Jonah’s grade jumped to 89.2 as a junior and a similar developmental leap is needed out of Thomas to make the top-five a reality.
5. Giants - Ohio State EDGE Chase Young
A five-star recruit and top-10 overall prospect in his class, Chase Young has lived up to the hype. When Ohio State unexpectedly lost Nick Bosa for the season last September, the Buckeyes desperately needed Young to not just have star potential, but to actually be a star.
And boy was he. Young wreaked havoc off the edge, posting 9.5 sacks and 14.5 TFL as a true sophomore. This year, even more is expected from the rangy 6-foot-5, 265-pounder. We can only pray we get to see more of him as a junior than we saw of Bosa last season.
Related fun fact: 2019 will be the first season the Buckeyes haven’t had a Bosa on the edge since 2012. I was living in China that year. A lifetime ago. We need Young to dominate so as not to be subjected to a deluge of cloying announcer jokes to the effect of, “Ohio State sure could use a Bosa this afternoon! — are there any more in the pipeline?!”
6. Broncos - Colorado WR Laviska Shenault
How fun is this?! And how perfect!
The Broncos had a secondary need of receiver that they didn’t address in last month’s draft until doing a favor to Shenault’s former teammate Juwann Winfree in the sixth-round. This time, let’s actually address the position.
I think the industry is still sleeping on Shenault a little. From the standpoint of utter on-field domination, size and dreadlocks, Shenault reminded me of Julio Jones from Alabama last year. That’s not a perfect comp, though, because Jones is faster and Shenault is probably stronger. Neither is LeBron James, the Shenault comp given by his QB Steven Montez.
Shenault is the guy you feed touches to as often as possible and in as many ways possible because he’s so difficult to tackle. He’s both a big-play maven and a high-volume playmaker. Two other comps that might fit a little better: Sammy Watkins (perhaps the most common in the industry right now) and Anquan Boldin. Boldin works better from a strength/toughness perspective.
I first saw the Boldin comp from, of all people, USC DC Clancy Pendergast, who was a DC for the Arizona Cardinals during Boldin’s time there. In the lead-up to last October's USC-Colorado game, Pendergast noted that Shenault “can really handle the ball in the open field but (he) also create[s] mismatches down the field.”
Though Shenault’s skill with the ball in his hands leads to plenty of passes caught around the line of scrimmage, he’s still the Pac-12’s leading returning receiver in yards per route run (3.44; the next highest is USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown with 2.65).
Shenault is so tricky to defend because he can pop the top off the defense whenever he's sent on a fly route, but you have to be cognizant of all the damage he can do around the line of scrimmage and in the intermediate sector. He's impossible for corners to tackle one-on-one on the perimeter.
Shenault is not only physically dominant -- legendary Colorado coach Gary Barnett said he’s the best player to play for the Buffaloes in the past 20 years -- but he's extremely versatile. Last year, Colorado lined up Shenault outside, in the slot, at tight end and as a Wildcat quarterback. When he has the ball in his hands, you hold your breath.
I’m not convinced that Jeudy is the best receiver in the 2020 class. I think it very well may be Shenault. Doesn't mean he'll get drafted first, though. Jeudy is going to blow the roof off at the NFL Combine, whereas Shenault is likely to test as “just” a “very-very-very good” athlete. I love his fit with Denver.
7. Bengals - Oregon QB Justin Herbert
Slotting Herbert this high is a bet that he’ll return to his 2017 form. Because make no mistake about it: He sharply — and shockingly — regressed in 2018.
There were games when he was the old Justin Herbert — he played great against Cal and Stanford, for instance, and had a solid showing against Michigan State’s awesome defense in the bowl game — but he also turned in some of the worst tape you’ll see out of a top-10 quarterback this side of Daniel Jones (I kid, Giants fans!).
The Arizona game was an assault on the eyes. Herbert was also terrible against lowly San Jose State and Oregon State, and against mighty Washington and the Fightin’ Herms of Arizona State. But man oh man is he dangerous when he's cooking.
Herbert’s size and athleticism are ideal, and when he’s on, he fires made-to-order bullets all over the field — no matter who he’s playing (the reason this isn’t a Drew Lock situation). But when he’s off, he’s downright bad. We need Good Justin to show up 11-12 times in 2019.
I believe in the kid. I don’t know what got into his Wheaties at certain points last year, but I give him all the credit in the world for returning to school. He’d be a New York Giant right now if he hadn’t, but taking his uncorrected flaws to the pros assuredly would have increased his odds of busting. Time to work.
8. 49ers - LSU S Grant Delpit
Delpit finished with five interceptions, five sacks, nine forced incompletions last year (No. 6 among safeties), and 13 pressures (No. 5). He’s extremely dangerous when allowed to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.
A high-end athlete, Delpit is also very gifted in coverage. He allowed a 57.3 passer rating against last year with only 0.64 yards allowed per cover snap, according to PFF.
Tackling is an area that needs improvement. Per PFF, Delpit missed 16 of 80 tackle attempts last season.
Range isn’t. The kid chews up grass in an instant to break up big plays. Once he cleans up his technique, he’s going to be a true monster. He’s already one of college football’s best defenders. Sky's the limit.