The Daily Briefing Wednesday, April 19, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

The NFL announced on Tuesday that it will announce its 2017 schedule at 8 p.m. on Thursday.

– – –

Even in a league with vast sums of money available to all and a salary cap, Brent Schrotenboer at USA TODAY says income inequality is a big issue.

 

The gap between rich and poor teams in the NFL has gotten so wide in recent years that three of the underprivileged franchises have taken drastic action:

 

In the past 15 months, the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders all decided to leave their home markets and move to cities that offered better stadiums and more local revenue potential.

 

By 2030, several more of the NFL’s low-revenue teams might face the same pressure: Do they risk shrinking financial margins as costs go up for all teams with rising player salaries? Or do they relocate to where they can better keep up with teams that have bigger markets or better stadiums?

 

That is the big issue boiling under the hot pot of NFL relocation, from the viewpoint of low-revenue teams, said Troy Blackburn, vice president of the small-market Cincinnati Bengals.

 

The revenue disparity between teams is “the largest it’s ever been in NFL history,” Blackburn told USA TODAY Sports. Even though teams equally share the revenues of NFL television contracts and a portion of ticket sales, they don’t share other local stadium revenues with each other, leading to the rising gap.

 

He said St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland essentially all lost NFL teams because of this issue. If they had stayed where they were, he said they faced an increasing financial squeeze as player salary expenses continue to shoot up for all teams while revenues definitely do not. The salary cap this year is $167 million per team, up from $155 million last year and $120 million in 2011.  Meanwhile, the gap between the highest- and lowest-revenue teams was $400 million, the Dallas Cowboys at $700 million compared to the Raiders at $300 million, according to Forbes in 2016.

 

Making matters worse is how the salary cap is calculated as a percentage of the NFL’s total revenues, Blackburn said. The more revenue those rich teams take in at the top, the higher player salary costs climb for all NFL teams, including those at the bottom.

 

“Right now, you’ve got many of the small markets paying over 60-plus percent of their revenues on players, and many of the large markets are paying 40 percent of revenue on players,” said Blackburn, who previously was the team’s director of stadium development and is the son-in-law of Bengals owner Mike Brown. “Something that could be done that narrowed that gap would be helpful, and it would make it easier for the small-market teams to stay where they are and not have to explore relocation.”

 

More relocation?

 

His suggestion to relieve this problem is more cost-sharing, possibly with richer clubs helping pay more for player benefits, which are separate from the salary cap and include pensions, insurance premiums and disability benefits. This year such player benefits are $37 million per team.

 

Or perhaps the NFL could provide other assistance similar to the old G-3 loan program for stadium construction.

 

“If the league is serious about franchise stability, maybe it should consider a new G-3 styled program that would help keep teams in small markets,” Blackburn said. “If it did it once, it can certainly do it again, if it truly cares about the issue.”

 

Otherwise the tension mounts and more relocation might be considered as teams with older stadiums have leases expiring in the 2020s, such as in Jacksonville, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

 

Blackburn said the Bengals are committed to Cincinnati and not looking to leave town when their lease expires at Paul Brown Stadium in 2026. It helps that his team received a $350 million stadium funded by a sales tax increase approved by voters in 1996. It also helps that his team received generous lease terms from Hamilton County, Ohio – which the team can extend an additional 10 years.

 

But as a small-market team executive, he still feels the pinch of the smaller-revenue economy, much of which stems from how the league does and doesn’t share its revenue and costs.

 

Old problem gets bigger

 

Tension over the revenue disparity isn’t new, and this is not the first time the Bengals have spoken out about it. Mike Brown has been a leading voice about what he sees as structural financial imbalance in the NFL. On the other side of the spectrum, some owners have not been very sympathetic to this argument. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones even previously suggested the low-revenue teams need to be more aggressive chasing dollars.

 

“The big concern I have is not how to equalize the disparity in revenue but how to get the clubs that are not generating the revenue to see the light,” Jones said in The Wall Street Journal in 2004.

 

Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple said Jones wasn’t available for comment.

 

Not all small or big markets are the same. Big market and small market in this context also sometimes is used to mean the haves and have-nots: teams that are making big money because of big markets or lucrative stadiums, versus those that are not.

 

“You’re always going to have a bottom eight, but if you keep enhancing the bottom eight, and you change them out, that means everyone’s doing better,” said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant who works with NFL owners and helped the Rams and Raiders relocate from Los Angeles in 1995.

 

The difference this time is the widening of the gap, the rising costs for all teams and how to “change out” the bottom eight without having them consider more relocation, which is bad for loyal NFL customers in abandoned markets.

 

Much of the league’s revenue is shared equally among 32 teams, recently at around $225 million each.  But the disparity has grown because of the revenues that teams are not required to share with each other – local dollars that are kept by the team that earns them, including highly lucrative stadium suites, advertising and sponsorships.

 

Costs go up for all

 

This unshared revenue creates a big gulf between teams with lucrative stadiums in wealthy corporate markets, compared to teams with outdated stadiums with fewer corporate customers willing to pay big bucks for sponsorships and suites.

 

“Let’s say, in New York, they can sell 250 suites at $200,000 per annum,” Blackburn said. “That’s $50 million per annum in suites. Well, in a smaller market, whether that’s Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Jacksonville, you’re not going to have 250 companies that can afford that. Let’s say you have 100 companies and say they can pay $100,000, just as an easy example. These numbers are pretty close to reality. That would mean that small-market teams would get $10 million per annum from the luxury box sales, and the large markets would be taking in $50 million every year.”

 

Likewise, Jacksonville isn’t going to get the same demand for national advertising or sponsorships as a team in New York.

 

This problem compounds for low-revenue teams because player salary expenses and the salary cap are determined by how much revenue the league makes collectively. Players are guaranteed 47% of the NFL’s total revenue over the course of the 10-year collective bargaining agreement from 2011, including combined local revenue. So as revenues rise for those big-market teams, so do player expenses for all teams. Teams also are required to spend at least 89% of the salary cap over a four-year period.

 

And that’s just fine for players and some franchises. But it’s a different story for the likes of Cincinnati and San Diego.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

TAMPA BAY

WR JOSH HUFF escapes without jail for taking his gun to Jersey.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Bucs wide receiver Josh Huff was sort-of-apologetic last year when he was arrested with an illegally registered gun, and now he doesn’t even have to go to jail for it.

 

According to Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, Huff has entered a pretrial diversion program that will allow him to take care of the unlawful possession charge with six months of probation.

 

Huff was a member of the Eagles when he was arrested last fall, but probably what made him a former Eagle were his comments after the arrest, when he defiantly said “What professional athlete don’t have a gun?” (The answer is many.)

 

Huff still faces a DUI citation for suspicion of being under the influence of marijuana, but that case hasn’t been heard yet.

 

He played a bit part for the Bucs after they picked him up last fall, catching three passes and returning six kickoffs. And he still faces potential discipline from the league under the conduct policy or the substance abuse policy.

 

AFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Even with a contract, DE JOEY BOSA likes staying away from the Chargers.  Eric D. Williams at ESPN.com:

 

For a second straight season, there appears to be a strain between the Chargers’ brass and talented defensive end Joey Bosa.

 

Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn confirmed to reporters here at Chargers Park on Tuesday that Bosa has been working with his personal trainer in Florida away from the facility the last two weeks, rather than attending voluntary workouts at Chargers Park.

 

Bosa also did not attend the start of Phase II offseason work for the Chargers on Tuesday. Bosa missed part of offseason work and all of training camp his rookie year due to a contract dispute over offset language in his rookie contract.

 

Once the contract dispute was resolved, Bosa suffered a hamstring strain his first practice back on the field, forcing him to miss the first four games of the regular season.

 

However, once on the field Bosa proved his worth, totaling 10.5 sacks in 12 games and earning the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

 

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Lynn said, when asked what’s going on with Bosa. “Joey and I talked the first day, and he’s training with his guy somewhere. But like I said, I’m only focused on the guys that are here trying to build the team.”

 

Asked if he was disappointed that Bosa did not show up, here’s what Lynn had to say:

 

“These are voluntary workouts, so guys can do whatever they want to do,” he said.

 

Along with Bosa, quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Kellen Clemens, along with tight end Antonio Gates and edge rusher Melvin Ingram were not in attendance on Tuesday, the first day Lynn and other coaches could work with players on the field.

 

Rivers and Clemens have family obligations and are expected back next week, Lynn said. The Chargers placed the franchise tag on Ingram, but he still has not signed the tender and is currently not under contract.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Dan Labbe of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the Browns “crazy” new defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams.

 

New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams rolled through his introductory press conference in January like a hurricane. Now those winds are blowing through the hallways of the team’s practice facility as players returned for the start of the Browns off-season program this week.

 

“His energy’s crazy,” cornerback Joe Haden said of the new defensive coordinator on Tuesday. “He definitely brings a different attitude. He’s very, very vocal, in your face and I feel like we definitely need that.”

 

Haden got to experience Williams’ intensity firsthand prior to this week. Haden said that when he first met Williams, the new defensive coordinator told him that had Haden not played through his groin injury last year, he would have made sure the Browns front office got him out of Cleveland.

 

That level of accountability and toughness is something that Haden is embracing along with the young leadership group on the defensive side of the roster.

 

“We need somebody that’s going to keep everybody accountable,” Haden said. “Me, (linebacker Chris) Kirksey, (linebacker Jamie) Collins, (defensive tackle) Danny (Shelton), he’s definitely going at us.”

 

“It’s a shock, but that’s what we need,” Haden said. “We need somebody that’s going to switch it up, change it up, tell us something, cuss us out, scream at us, let us know that we’re sorry right now and we’ve got to be better.”

 

The Browns were, by most statistical measures, one of the worst defenses in the NFL a season ago. They ranked 31st in yards per game, 30th in points allowed, 21st against the pass, 31st against the rush and they were the third-worst defense on third down.

 

The Browns gave up 30 or more points seven times, allowed fewer than 20 points once and allowed fewer than 25 points just three times.

 

If you’re into non-traditional statistics, Football Outsiders ranked the Browns defense 31st overall in DVOA, a metric that measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent, and in weighted defense, a metric that adjusts to make earlier games in the season less important, giving an idea of how a team was playing towards the end of the season.

 

It all led to head coach Hue Jackson firing defensive coordinator Ray Horton and most of his staff after the season ended. Williams’ demeanor and energy matches that of Jackson, something that was evident when the two were coaching the South team at the Senior Bowl.

 

Defensive tackle Danny Shelton agreed that the defense needed a little bit of a kick if they were going to get better.

 

“I think we did need that,” Shelton said. “I think that his mindset is what Cleveland needs in order for us to change and turn around the program.”

 

Still, the Browns and their fans have been down this road before. What makes Williams so different? Haden, again, pointed to the accountability.

 

“It doesn’t matter when you got drafted, who you are, he’s going to be in your face no matter what,” Haden said. “You’ve just got to accept it. You’ve got to make plays to be out there on the field.”

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

The Patriots were getting some ink on deals Tuesday – signing RBs JAMES WHITE and MIKE GILLESLIE and CB MALCOLM BUTLER.

 

Mike Reiss of ESPN.com on White:

 

– New England Patriots running back James White, who played the best game of his career in Super Bowl LI, has reached a three-year contract extension with the team, sources tell ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

 

White, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season, is now inked through the 2020 season.

 

The extension comes on the same day the Patriots extended a two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet to restricted free-agent running back Mike Gillislee. The Bills have until Monday to decide to match that offer.

 

As for the 5-foot-10, 205-pound White, he fills the “passing back” role in the Patriots’ offense, which is significant given how often the team throws the football. His strong pass-catching skills and willingness to pick up the blitz are part of what makes him an asset to the team in that role.

 

The 2016 season was White’s first full year as the team’s front-line “passing back” and he finished second on the team with 60 receptions for 551 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 166 yards rushing on 39 carries.

 

He saved his best performance for Super Bowl LI, as his 2-yard touchdown run capped off the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons. That the Patriots put the ball in White’s hands at that critical moment spoke volumes of the team’s confidence in him.

 

This on Gillislee:

 

The Bills placed an original-round tender on Gillislee worth $1.797 million, meaning the Patriots would send a fifth-round pick to the Bills if Buffalo declines to match. The Dolphins picked Gillislee in the fifth round of the 2013 draft but released him in 2015.

 

The financials were first reported by NFL Network.

 

If the Bills decline to match Gillislee’s offer, it is unlikely the Patriots will re-sign free-agent running back LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns, which was the highest total in the NFL since Adrian Peterson had 18 in 2009. He was the Patriots’ top power running back, totaling 1,161 yards on 299 carries in the regular season.

 

Gillislee set career highs last season with 577 yards receiving and nine touchdowns (eight rushing) in 15 games, including one start. His 5.7 yards per rush average led the NFL.

 

Here’s Reiss on what signing Butler to an RFA offer sheet might mean:

 

New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler has signed his restricted free-agent tender, which opens the possibility that the team could trade him.

 

Because a player can’t be traded unless he is under contract, Butler’s status was in limbo until he signed the $3.91 million tender.

 

Butler had not signed the tender in hopes that another NFL team might sign him to an offer sheet before Friday’s deadline. He visited one team, the New Orleans Saints, earlier in free agency.

 

The Saints didn’t plan to sign Butler to an offer sheet, but at the NFL’s annual meeting in March, coach Sean Payton seemed to hint the club could be interested in a different scenario.

 

“It’s ongoing, if you will,” Payton said at the time, pointing out that the Saints and Patriots couldn’t have trade talks about Butler unless he was under contract. “For us, it was a chance to meet him, put him on the board, find out how much football he knows. I think it was a good step.”

 

The Saints have made it an offseason priority to improve their defense. The Patriots, meanwhile, signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a top-of-the-market five-year, $65 million contract as an unrestricted free agent and could be enticed to recoup some draft capital in a trade involving Butler, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season.

 

The Patriots don’t have a 2017 draft pick until early in the third round (No. 72 overall).

 

Another scenario is holding on to Butler for this season and pairing him with Gilmore in what would be one of the NFL’s better one-two combinations.

 

ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates first reported news of Butler signing his tender.

 

Oh yes, they re-structured WR DANNY AMENDOLA also according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald:

 

Patriots receiver Danny Amendola has restructured his contract for the third consecutive year, according to a source.

 

Amendola knew this day was coming since May when he restructured the 2016 portion of his pact, and he has been open to this scenario throughout the process. The details of Amendola’s contract have not yet been disclosed.

 

Amendola originally signed a five-year contract in 2013 that was worth up to $31 million. By restructuring the first two times, he earned $16.1 million through 2016. He gave back $2 million in cash (and $2.54 million in cap space) in 2015 and another $3.9 million in cash (and $3.95 million in cap space) in 2016.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

AARON HERNANDEZ

Aaron Hernandez will not be re-united with his family as his lawyer vowed after a Boston jury acquitted him of murder (but found him guilty of a gun possession charge).  Instead, he has died at his own hand.  The Boston Globe:

 

Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in prison Wednesday morning, the Department of Correction said.

 

According to a statement from the department, the former New England Patriots star was discovered hanging in his cell at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass., at approximately 3:05 a.m.

 

“Mr. Hernandez was in a single cell in a general population unit,” the statement said. “Mr. Hernandez hanged himself utilizing a bedsheet that he attached to his cell window. Mr. Hernandez also attempted to block his door from the inside by jamming the door with various items.”

 

State Police are investigating, and his family has been notified.

 

 

PEYTON MANNING

Peyton Manning was back in Indianapolis and charming.  Zak Keefer in the Indianapolis Star:

 

This is Peyton Manning at 41: He drives his kids to kindergarten. He’s a member of a health club – and not just any member, he wants you to know. He was named member of the month for October.

 

Of course he was.

 

Perfect attendance will do that.

 

“I wake up, put my robe on,” Manning joked, rolling through his various commercial spots. “Lionel Ritchie comes over and I kind of start my day. I make nachos for Eli on Tuesdays.”

 

That was Manning on Tuesday night – funny when he needed to be, inspirational in other moments, polished throughout – as the Indianapolis Colts icon was honored at Lucas Oil Stadium by Marian University. He was the lone member inducted into the Clayton Family Circle of Honor.

 

Speaking in a question-and-answer format on stage for roughly 30 minutes, Manning dotted his college days at Tennessee, his 18-year NFL career, his philanthropy in the city he called home for 14 seasons and his life now. He spent Monday night in town at an event for Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital.

 

What he did not touch on was his future. At just 41 and a year removed from the game, Manning could have just about any job he wants in football. Publicly, he’s been intentionally coy since his retirement about what he might dig into next, though he was contacted by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay last winter about potentially returning to the franchise in a front-office capacity. Whether that ever materializes remains to be seen.

 

For now, Manning said, he’s enjoying the freedom 18 years in the NFL never allowed. He and wife Ashley traveled to China last fall. He took in Tennessee Vols games and New York Giants games. He returned to Indianapolis for the Colts’ 10-year Super Bowl reunion.

 

And, yes, he filmed more commercials.

 

“I apologize,” he told the crowd. “I’ve retired from football but I have not retired from being on your television screen 24/7.”

– – –

He talked about what he misses. About what he doesn’t miss.

 

“I don’t miss the hits,” he said to laughter. “People say, ‘I bet you miss those blindside hits.’ No. I was able to avoid the blindside hits a lot mainly because of you (looking out to the crowd). I’d hear you going ‘Ahhhhh’ and I’d just scoot up. Just scoot up.”

 

He misses the plane rides after wins. He misses the camaraderie with teammates. He misses the time spent with equipment managers and ballboys and trainers – the behind-the-scenes heroes that helped Manning be Manning.

 

He elaborated on his leadership philosophies, his love of being coached, his unending desire to be respected by teammates and coaches. “Coaches have been the best leaders I’ve been around,” he said. “Tony Dungy was every bit as good a human being as he was a coach. Treated you like such a professional, like such a grown up, that you just didn’t want to let him down. It was a very effective way of leading. You respected him so much that you played harder for him.”

 

Manning proudly pointed out that during his playing days, he and Eli spent a part of every summer training with his old offensive coordinator from Tennessee, current Duke coach David Cutcliffe, honing in on the most basic of fundamentals.

 

Like: how to take a snap, how to stand in the huddle, how to call a play. High school stuff.

 

“Don’t think you ever got it all figured out,” he told the crowd, many of which were Marian student-athletes. “Because the little things matter. And if you ever think the little things don’t matter, and you can brush those aside, I promise you in whatever you’re doing, your game’s going to slip.”

 

(Manning also revealed his chocolate lab – named Colt, of course – recently passed away at the age of 16. “Watched a lot of film with Colt. Good listener,” he said.)

 

Manning’s interview ended with a rapid-fire session. (He prefers thin crust to pan pizza. He named “Modern Family,” on which he recently guest-starred, his favorite show. His favorite meal to cook? “Cereal,” he said. “A man’s got to know his limitations.”)

 

“There’s no doubt it’s been a transition,” he said of retirement, which he still seems to be getting the hang of. “It’s been welcomed and something I’ve really enjoyed.”

 

 

2017 DRAFT

Peter King on the comparisons between Texas Tech QB PATRICK MAHOMES and Brett Favre:

 

The draft is filled with mysterious but intriguing prospects. Atop that list, or close: Texas Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes. While in Lubbock, Mahomes put up some silly stats in a pass-first, spread offense, but also got sloppy with his mechanics, at times improvised too much, made some decisions that left coaches shaking their heads, and showed a cannon for an arm.

 

Ring a historical bell? With some coaches it has. And how coincidental it is that, on the same campus, working at the Texas Tech Double T Varsity Club (the organization for Texas Tech alumni athletes), is Rodney Allison, the man who was the quarterback coach for a similar college player 27 years ago: Brett Favre.

 

Recently, New Orleans coach Sean Payton found his way to campus to examine Mahomes, and he found Allison, the former quarterback coach at Southern Miss when Favre was there in the early nineties.

 

“I told Coach Payton, ‘Pat’s got everything it takes. He’s got some Favre-like qualities,’” Allison said from his office in Lubbock the other day. “Similar in styles. They create things on the field that other guys don’t.

 

“Now how will that translate to the NFL? I don’t know. But he’s a similar player to Brett. And Pat studies the game. He loves the game.”

 

One difference: Favre lived a wilder life in college than Mahomes does now. Favre was a party guy. He crashed his car a few weeks before his senior season began, and had to have a major part of his intestine removed. “I was one of the guys who went to the hospital when it happened, and we were more worried about his life than whether he’d ever play football again,” Allison said. But weeks after the accident, a tender Favre took the field in Tuscaloosa and engineered a major upset of Alabama. The legend was born. Two years later, he was a Packer.

 

Mahomes also has played well against big opposition, and NFL scouts like that. His other-worldly 734-passing-yard performance against Oklahoma last year was a silly basketball game of a football game, but it was one the NFL noticed. Mahomes was mostly coming from behind with a prolific offense and a terrible defense last year.

 

Allison had an interesting observation when I pointed out that Mahomes must benefit from having been around professional athletes. His dad, Pat Mahomes, and godfather, Latroy Hawkins, pitched in the major leagues for a combined 32 years, and the young Mahomes used to go on some road trips and played ball in many big-league parks. “Right,” Allison said. “But remember Brett’s dad was a coach. Brett was around the game his whole life, and that really helped him know what he was doing.”

 

The young Mahomes played baseball early in his Texas Tech career before quitting to concentrate on football. Allison thinks it would help for Mahomes to do the same thing (minus the beer and late nights) that Favre did in his rookie NFL season.

 

“I think quarterbacks need to sit for a while,” Allison said. “And Pat, he’s just raw. He’s been a baseball player. He had that arm slot. He’s got a great arm. Mechanically, I think he struggles with a few things. But it’s fixable, for sure. Coach Payton told me he thought there were things that would be pretty simple to fix in a fairly short period of time. Like, when he goes left on a bootleg, getting his feet under him so he’s more balanced when he throws. That’s just practice. But like Brett, Pat just loves playing. You can see the fun they have. With both guys, it was contagious with their teammates. Arm-strength, Patrick might be better. They’re at least the same.”

 

Atlanta chose Favre with the 33rd pick in the 1991 draft. A year later, Favre got traded to Green Bay for the 19th overall pick in the 1992 draft. Where will Mahomes go when the draft kicks off in eight days? Certainly earlier than 33rd, and perhaps earlier than 19th. The Cardinals, jonesing for a long-term replacement for 37-year-old Carson Palmer, have eyes for Mahomes and pick 13th in the first round. The smart team for Mahomes? The one that, as Allison said, can afford to put him in school for a year, and not be tempted to throw him into the fire before he’s ready.

– – –

Cris Collinsworth has his first Mock Draft of 2017 which appears at ProFootballFocus.com.  His big shocker – DeSHAUN WATSON at number 4 to the Jaguars.

 

With less than two weeks remaining until the league descends upon Philadelphia for the 2017 NFL Draft, I take my best pass at Round 1. A couple of observations before we dive into my first mock draft of the year:

 

Quarterbacks: I’m simply not down on this quarterback class. I just don’t think there is much difference in the top four’s chances of success in the NFL. They all can do some things really well, but all have issues, too. If I wanted a quarterback in this class, I would let the market dictate who I drafted; I would not want to spend a top-10 pick on any of them, because I would feel my chances of success would be just as great with QBs Nos. 2–4. Therefore, I would let the first two quarterbacks go off the board and then try to trade up to get one of the next two. There are so many talented players in this draft, I wouldn’t want the risk associated with either of the first two quarterback choices. But history tells us that QBs will go early, and I think it will happen again.

Talent, talent, talent: Teams that have a lot of picks in the first two rounds have to be loving their chances. We once took a Disney Cruise with our children, and there were so many kids in the Mickey Mouse pool on the first day, I told my wife, “You couldn’t hit water if you threw a ping-pong ball in that thing.” I feel the same way about this draft — you will have to work really hard to miss in the early rounds.

 

1. Cleveland Browns

Myles Garrett, Edge, Texas A&M

The real drama for the Browns doesn’t come until their pick at No. 12. The No. 1 pick has only two options: draft Myles Garrett, or trade out of the pick for someone who wants him enough to pay a heavy price. Either scenario works for Cleveland. Garrett moves like a point guard who is completely in control of the action — Jason Pierre-Paul in his prime comes to mind. The former Aggie’s speed and quickness will set up bull-rushes when the tackles are on their heels. When he smells a sack, he has a great burst. The Browns cannot lose with the first pick.

 

2. San Francisco 49ers

Solomon Thomas, Edge, Stanford

If I were John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, I would be trying like crazy to trade out of this pick. But unless someone has fallen in love with one of these QBs, who would they be trading up to get? My guess is the 49ers have to make a pick here. A quarterback at No. 2 is a huge risk that I don’t think these two decision-makers will take with their first pick together. Prospect Solomon Thomas can play the valued 3-technique that Warren Sapp played in Tampa Bay, Marshon Lattimore gives them the best cornerback, and John Lynch has to admire the play of safeties Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker. You can’t go wrong with the work ethic of Thomas, though, and the Stanford connection doesn’t hurt. A patient but solid pick, Thomas heads to the Bay Area.

 

3. Chicago Bears

Jonathan Allen, DI, Alabama

I’m going to guess that John Fox really believes that Mike Glennon is his QB of the future, so the Bears will draft one of two areas of need: defensive line or cornerback. Eventually you have to beat Aaron Rodgers in the NFC North, so would you rather get an interior push to flush the Green Bay QB out of the pocket, or a corner to cover his receivers? One CB is never enough, so I guess Allen will get the call. Flushing Rodgers out of the pocket may not be the best strategy, but it will now be Allen’s job. As scouts like to say, God only made so many bodies like Allen’s, so you better get them early. Newly-acquired Akiem Hicks and Allen will be rock solid inside for the Bears.

 

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

This pick comes down to whether Tom Coughlin and company are sold on Blake Bortles. Coughlin loves playmaking, physical tight ends, so Alabama’s O.J. Howard has to be considered, despite the Jaguars picking up Mychal Rivera from the Raiders. An offensive linemen or a pass-rusher like Tennessee’s Derrick Barnett also would fit, but I’m taking my first big swing here and going with Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Bortles has some mechanical issues that slow his release time; he may still make it in the NFL, but Jacksonville needs proven leadership with a history of winning in the toughest moments. Watson is a risky pick, but just feels like the kind of dynamic playmaker this fan base is crying out for. Watson has a much tighter release than Bortles, a great understanding of the back-shoulder concept (and would have the receivers in Jacksonville to make it work), reads defenses well, and is a committed pocket-passer despite his ability to move. He’s a little like Dallas’ Dak Prescott in that regard. This probably never happens, but I like Watson here.

 

5. Cleveland Browns (trade up from No. 12 pick with Titans)

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina

 [Trade details: Browns give first-round (No. 12 overall), second-round (No. 52 overall), and fourth-round (No. 108 overall) picks to Titans for first-round (No. 5 overall) pick.]

 

With Deshaun Watson off the board, and the very real possibility that the Jets take Mitchell Trubisky with the next pick, if the Browns want the former Tar Heel quarterback, this is where they have to land. Cleveland has the picks to make the move, but it wouldn’t surprise me if any of the QB-needy teams jump into a bidding war here. The Jets, Bills, Browns, Cardinals, or Texans are all possible trading partners for the Titans if they consider Trubisky to be the clear No. 2 QB — or the No. 1 choice if Watson hasn’t been taken yet. If the Browns get Trubisky and Garrett in the first five picks, their draft is a success no matter what they have to give up. This order could change if Trubisky or Watson is taken by San Francisco, Chicago, or Jacksonville, but I still see this fifth pick as the key to the draft for teams that want priority over the Jets. Trubisky has good size and mobility, with quick feet in the pocket. He seems to process his thoughts quickly. His three-quarters motion is a little like Dan Marino or Philip Rivers, and doesn’t scare me. He does miss some easy throws and came up short on a few deep balls, but this is about the right spot for Trubisky to be taken.

 

6. New York Jets

Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State

The Jets have a desperate need at quarterback. But in his heart, Todd Bowles is a defensive coach who wants to play man coverage, and the best cornerback in this draft just fell into his lap. Lattimore is simply just too good to pass up here. He may not be Darrelle Revis, but then again, he just might be. The Jets have so many needs — quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive line among them — but passing on clearly the best player on the board is too much, and the Jets take Lattimore.

 

7. Los Angeles Chargers

Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State

Anthony Lynn hired Gus Bradley as his defensive coordinator, whose roots run through Seattle. I always thought safety Earl Thomas’ ability to cover sideline-to-sideline was the secret sauce behind that Seahawks’ defensive success. LSU’s Jamal Adams is a tremendous player, but Malik Hooker reminds me more of Thomas with his playmaking from centerfield. His ability to cover mistakes by the corners on deep balls is what sets him apart. I know most people think Adams is the fit here, and the former Tiger is a much better tackler than Hooker, so he could be, but I wrote down Earl Thomas’ name five times while watching Hooker’s tape, so he gets my vote. The former Buckeye’s poor tackling is a problem, though, and he may give up as many big plays as he creates unless it improves.

 

8. Carolina Panthers

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

This pick is tough. Better players may be on the board, but I can’t get the idea of Fournette playing with Cam Newton out of my mind. Can you imagine a read-option with those two? What makes the read-option so difficult to defend is that you end up a half-step too slow getting to the ball carrier while reading the QB/RB mesh point, and whether that is Fournette or Newton, you have a problem on defense. Good luck with that arm-tackle. In any other offense, Fournette would be a two-down player, but the Panthers like to grind it out with power, and by the fourth quarter, those two monsters will have you worn out. I know they want to take carries off Newton and help that offense line with play-action — Fournette should deliver both. Now the Panthers just have to hope a decent tackle is still there in the second round.

 

9. Cincinnati Bengals

Derek Barnett, Edge, Tennessee

I cannot believe the number of great players left available to the Bengals at the ninth pick. Cincinnati needs a wide receiver opposite A.J. Green, an offensive lineman after the loss of both Andrew Whitworth (Rams) and Kevin Zeitler (Browns), a pass-rusher to help Carlos Dunlap, and another corner with Adam Jones finally showing signs of age and continued off-field struggles. I’m guessing the team goes defense, and the Bengals usually only draft pass-rushers and corners this high. Tennessee’s Derek Barnett is the best pass-rusher I have left on my board, so pencil him in here. He has a quick inside move, can really get low around the edge, has a natural spin move, and his pressure percentage has been in the top three the last two years.

 

10. Buffalo Bills

John Ross, WR, Washington

John Ross ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the combine, the fastest time ever recorded at the event. He is only 5-foot-11 and has some injury issues, but is such an exciting player to watch. Unlike most speed receivers, he is tough and willing to take a hit. I like his hands, too. It is almost laughable how far off cornerbacks play against him. It seemed that anytime Washington wanted an easy completion, it was there to Ross. He is also a great red-zone player for someone his size. Ross loves those slants and skinny posts in the red zone and scored 17 TDs his final year at Washington. With Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy, and John Ross, the pressure is on Tyrod Taylor to produce.

 

11. New Orleans Saints

Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

It’s always hard to pass on receivers when I’m picking for New Orleans — Mike Williams or Corey Davis would be fun to watch in this offense — but the Saints have to take defense, right? If there is a spot for Foster, this is it. The league has changed, and cover linebackers that don’t have to come off the field on third down are so valuable to continuity on the defensive side of the ball. As one defensive coordinator once told me, teams don’t lose games on run plays — they lose on passing plays. Foster will fly sideline to sideline and cover backs and tight ends. He can flip his hips like a cornerback in coverage. The former Alabama standout is a flashy prospect that plays with a lot of emotion, and should be a fan favorite in New Orleans for years to come. I hope the combine incident was an aberration.

 

12. Tennessee Titans (trade down from No. 5 pick with Browns)

Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

 [Trade details: Titans give first-round pick (No. 5 overall) to Browns for first-round (No. 12 overall), second-round (No. 52 overall), and fourth-round (No. 108 overall) picks.]

With the way the Titans can run the ball, if they can find a receiver that cannot be covered one-on-one outside due to his size and physical skills, then teams will really struggle to load the box against Tennessee. The NFL is really all about scoring in the red zone. All teams move it between the 20s, but the teams that win score touchdowns instead of kicking field goals. Williams completes the equation for Tennessee’s offense — mobile QB, power running game behind a physical offensive line, and now a big, TD-scoring wide receiver. Mike Williams is my choice for the Titans.

 

13. Arizona Cardinals

Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama

I’m very tempted to put DeShone Kizer here; the former Notre Dame quarterback fits the Ben Roethlisberger/Carson Palmer style of play that Bruce Arians has had so much success with. However, the Cardinals need cornerbacks — the Arizona faithful have to be sick of watching big plays on the side of the field opposite star CB Patrick Peterson. To fix the problem, Alabama’s Marlon Humphry is my choice. He is a physical corner who plays his guts out, but does give up a few big plays. Tre’Davious White may be a better pure cover corner, but he won’t hit anybody, and I’m not sure Arians could stomach him. Humphrey is a hitter with perfect height, weight, and speed numbers. Plus, he is a low-risk pick at a position of great need for the Cardinals.

 

14. Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota Vikings)

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

I want to give the Eagles a receiver with the speed of John Ross to play alongside Alshon Jeffery, but Philadelphia has to have a cornerback, and White is the next best available. He may drive Jim Schwartz nuts if he refuses to tackle, but Schwartz has no choice — you can’t compete without corners. I love White’s ability to find the ball in the air. Most young corners are afraid to turn their head and look for deep balls, and they end up getting beat. White is rock-solid there. I also don’t see him as a guy that will get a lot of cheap fouls; he keeps his hands to himself. I thought White would run a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash, but at 4.47, he was a little slower than his run-and-cover style would suggest. White has legitimate coverage skills, though, and should go in the first half of the draft.

 

15. Indianapolis Colts

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

The Colts have to create a quicker passing game to keep quarterback Andrew Luck healthy. Luck’s greatest weakness is his belief that if he holds the ball, something will happen downfield. If he has a weapon that would encourage him to check it down, this entire offense could explode, and Luck might make it through the season in one piece. The most versatile weapon in this draft is McCaffrey. Marshall Faulk was drafted by the Colts once upon a time, and McCaffrey may not be Faulk, but his style is very similar. He can split out and play wide receiver without any issue. Plus, he has really quick moves running inside. His hands are better than most wide receivers, and he has no fear. McCaffrey is surprisingly tough to tackle, and averages 3.3 yards after contact, a very good number. It would not surprise me if McCaffrey ended the 2017 season as Rookie of the Year.

 

16. Baltimore Ravens

Haason Reddick, Edge/LB, Temple

The Ravens have intimidated for many years with great edge pressure. However, Terrell Suggs is older, Elvis Dumervil has been released, and Baltimore needs help. There are so many pass-rushers in this draft, but Haason Reddick from Temple is different. Pure speed and athleticism off the edge, he can rush inside despite his small size, and can stand up and play off the ball at linebacker. I’m not sure where he will play, but Reddick brings the element of pass-rush intimidation back to the Ravens’ defense. He doesn’t even look at blockers when he rushes; he knows they won’t block him. He runs a 4.52-second 40-yard dash and has a 36-inch vertical jump — his explosiveness is apparent in his play. Reddick will live in the backfield, and tackles-for-a-loss will be a regular occurrence.

 

17. Washington Redskins

Jamal Adams, S, LSU

I can’t believe Jamal Adams has fallen this far in my mock. If he is available at No. 17, the Redskins will jump for joy. Adams is more of the Troy Polamalu-style prospect that can play anywhere. He is an excellent tackler and can play in the slot, middle of the field, or inside linebacker. He is much more of a strong safety-type than Malik Hooker, but still looks good covering slot receivers. I love his energy and the way he wraps up tackles low and around the legs. He rarely misses tackles in the open field. I do like Adams better around the line of scrimmage than in the middle of the field, but he should be a terrific player for a decade in Washington.

 

18. Tennessee Titans

Malik McDowell, DI, Michigan State

The Titans got their receiver with their No. 5 pick, and now look for a pass-rusher or cornerback. I am going to my secret weapon on this pick: Malik McDowell. McDowell is 6-foot-6 and weighs almost 300 pounds. He played only 425 snaps last season due to an ankle injury, but was dominant in those snaps according to Pro Football Focus’ data. McDowell has a very unusual sprinter’s stance, but plays outside, 3-tech, and nose tackle. With his stance, he will occasionally get washed down, but will get coached on that, and likely only improve. NFL teams will not be able to resist the perfect body type for a defensive lineman.

 

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin

I know the pressure will be on Tampa Bay to take former FSU running back Dalvin Cook to re-unite him with Jameis Winston, but Winston has to survive first. The Buccaneers need an upgrade at left tackle, and Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin will be a solid LT for years. He is physical in the run game, confident and efficient in protection against top pass-rushers, and is ready to play coming out of a Wisconsin system that has offensive linemen NFL-ready with their pro-style system. He is coming off hip surgery, but his consistent play against top-caliber competition like Michigan and Ohio State makes him the first tackle off the board. The New York Giants will shed a tear, but Ramczyk goes here.

 

20. Denver Broncos

Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama

I’m going back-to-back offensive tackles here, as the Broncos have to improve their offensive line. Cam Robinson from Alabama will be more physical, and I believe may end up becoming a Pro Bowl left tackle. The Broncos have to improve both their running game and pass protection if they are going to win with young quarterbacks. Robinson is the biggest of these tackles, but can still move in space. He is not as strong as Tyron Smith of Dallas, but is tough to beat once he gets his hands on you. He can get top-heavy with that forward lean sometimes, but will figure that out. Robinson is the perfect answer for the Broncos at No. 20 — John Elway will be thrilled with this pick.

 

21. Detroit Lions

Charles Harris, Edge, Missouri

The Lions saw a down year from Ziggy Ansah, and were saved by an unexpectedly good season from Kerry Hyder, with eight sacks. The Lions need more from their rush, and Charles Harris from Missouri is a great fit. This former basketball player has a beautiful spin move that looks effortless. He recorded just a 4.8-second 40-yard dash, but he plays fast and gets consistent hits on the quarterback. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is holding the ball and creating now more than ever, so finding more people to attack him is the first step to competing in the NFC North.

 

22. Miami Dolphins

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

The Miami Dolphins took huge strides on offense under Adam Gase, QB Ryan Tannehill was much improved until injured, RB Jay Ajayi was brilliant at times, and WR DeVante Parker is coming on. Now the Dolphins’ good luck continues, as O.J. Howard falls to No. 22. Howard runs a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, is an athletic blocker for those outside-zone runs the Dolphins love, and recorded just three drops over the last two seasons. He lacks a little physical toughness to be a top-15 pick, but has a ton of upside that Gase will develop. Greg Olsen, the receiving tight end from Carolina, is a good comparison.

 

23. New York Giants

Garett Bolles, OT, Utah

The Giants have to get better at tackle. I don’t think Ereck Flowers is the answer at left tackle, but he may be a solid right tackle. Bolles is probably 25 pounds lighter, and bull-rushes may be a problem for him. He has exceptional feet and will not get beat quickly on the edge. Eli Manning gets rid of the ball so fast, it will be a rare that a pass-rusher will get through Bolles quickly enough to get to the QB. Don’t expect a power blocker in the running game — he is much more of a stretch run-type tackle. The Giants, with offseason additions Brandon Marshall and Garett Bolles, should be a contender.

 

24. Oakland Raiders

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

With so many quality players left on the board, the Raiders can’t miss. Marshawn Lynch is in many ways the key to this pick. If he signs (it’s not yet official), the Raiders may pass on a first-round back, but they could also draft a complementary player here like Cook from FSU. The most elusive back in college football has the speed to break open games as a runner and receiver. He is smaller and doesn’t block well, but at the very least, you will get a playmaker on third down. I worry a little about his shoulders and don’t love him running inside, but at No. 24 in the first round, Cook is too good to pass up.

 

25. Houston Texans

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech

How strongly do the Texans feel about Tom Savage? Quarterback is the obvious choice now that Tony Romo is working for CBS. At this point, they’re likely choosing between Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer. My guess is that if Mahomes falls to pick No. 25, the Texans will take him. Think Brett Favre coming out of college: it’s a wild and fun show watching Mahomes play, but he is all over the place. He is going to sling the ball and worry about it later. His arm strength is tremendous, he can run for first downs, and has no guilty conscience after interceptions. But Mahomes is a project, and thinking of him as a ready-to-play rookie would be a mistake. Savage will likely be the opening-day starter regardless of which quarterback the Texans take.

 

26. Arizona Cardinals (trade up into Round 1, pick No. 26, with Seahawks)

DeShone Kizer, QB, Cardinals

 [Trade details: Cardinals give Seahawks 2017 second-round (No. 45 overall) and 2018 second-round picks for 2017 first-round pick (No. 26) overall.]

The Cardinals guess correctly that Patrick Mahomes would be the next quarterback off the board, and make a move to get the QB they wanted all along — DeShone Kizer from Notre Dame. Kizer is just 21 years old and has plenty of upside. By giving him a chance to work with Bruce Arians and play behind Carson Palmer for a year or two, the Cardinals will have a logical succession plan in place for the most important position on the field. This may end up being one of those picks 10 years from now that people look back and say, how did all those teams pass on him? With RB David Johnson as a check-down, you will see Kizer not taking the sacks he took at Notre Dame. Arians teaches with tough love and is a great preacher of fundamentals — both fit Kizer’s needs. The Seahawks will now be able to load up on picks in a deep draft. If Seattle keeps the pick, offensive line is the obvious choice.

 

27. Kansas City Chiefs

Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State

Gareon Conley, the “other cornerback” from Ohio State, is too good to pass up at No. 27. The Chiefs will also need to look for a replacement for Derrick Johnson at linebacker, but with Marcus Peters on one side, Conley on the other, and safety Eric Berry in middle, this secondary starts to look like it’s on a level with Denver’s unit. Conley isn’t flashy, but does such a great job getting his head around and finding the ball — he may end up with a lot of interceptions. He isn’t quite as quick-twitch as some of the others, but he is a steal here.

 

28. Dallas Cowboys

Taco Charlton, Edge, Michigan

There are still a lot of pass-rushers I like here, but the Cowboys need somebody who can stay on the field on run downs as well.  Charlton seems to be the best fit. Yes, he was inconsistent at Michigan, but finished well and has the height and long arms that will fit Rod Marinelli’s defense. Marinelli will get everything Charlton has to give. The Cowboys teach technique and hustle, period. This will be the best thing that ever happened to Charlton, and his natural gifts will allow him to grow into a special player.

 

29. Green Bay Packers

Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma

This is where the mock gets crazy. The Packers used Ty Montgomery at running back last year and Eddie Lacy is in Seattle. Running back seems the obvious choice for Green Bay, and the best back on the board is Joe Mixon from Oklahoma. Of course, he is the guy who punched a female Oklahoma student during his freshman year. Nothing about me wants to pick him in the first round or any other round of this draft, but the reality is that somebody will take him. Mixon will be drafted in the second round at least, so does it make sense for the Packers to pass on him knowing somebody else will likely take him within a few picks? Let me just give you my football opinion without regard to that awful crime: Mixon is the most talented back in this draft. He is a much better receiver than Fournette, bigger than McCaffery, and a much better inside runner and blocker than Cook. My hunch is that the Packers will take Mixon with this pick.

 

30. Pittsburgh Steelers

Carl Lawson, Edge, Auburn

Pittsburgh needs cornerbacks. Sidney Jones is a top corner in the draft, but he injured his Achilles at his pro day and probably won’t be ready for the season. Jones could be great if given time to develop or heal. But, since the Steelers likely only have Ben Roethlisberger for a few more seasons, I am giving them Carl Lawson as yet another hammer at outside linebacker. James Harrison can’t play forever, and Lawson fits in that big, physical Nick Perry/Terrell Suggs kind of role.

 

31. Atlanta Falcons

Tim Williams, Edge, Alabama

I love Tim Williams opposite Vic Beasley. Williams is a blur of a pass-rusher, but probably would not hold up for many run snaps. The good news is that the Falcons will score a lot of points, and most of their games will be shootouts. When Peyton Manning was with the Colts, they also were scoring a lot of points, and Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were rushing the quarterback the majority of the game. The pair was almost impossible to handle without help — Beasley and Williams could create some of those same issues in Atlanta. One more sack in Super Bowl LI and the Falcons would have been world champions.

 

32. New Orleans Saints (from New England Patriots)

Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan

The Saints traded away WR Brandin Cooks (Patriots) this offseason and need another playmaker. Corey Davis is a big, quick receiver that has averaged more than 8 yards after the catch over the last three seasons. His routes remind me of Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell’s running style. Bell is so patient sometimes that it looks like he isn’t trying; Davis is the same way. The former Western Michigan standout is so patient that you question his speed, but is so dynamic at the break point that defenders can’t stay with him. He is very crafty and is a creative route-runner. Someone has taught him well. My concern still, though, is his speed. Ankle surgery prevented him from running at the combine; the tape suggests that he could produce a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash, but I’m not sure. Assuming he is 4.5 or better, the Saints have a dangerous new weapon with some red-zone skills.