2017 NFL Mock Draft: Panthers add spark with McCaffrey, Howard falls to Bills
The Panthers get a home-run hitter to help spell Jonathan Stewart while the Bills get the draft's best TE
Whereas most of the NFL has veered against using premium selections on running backs, the Carolina Panthers have selected two with their top pick over the past 11 years, investing first-round picks in Jonathan Stewart (2008) and Deangelo Williams (2006) during that span.
History could be on the verge of repeating itself.
One of the reasons for Carolina's slip from the Super Bowl runner-up to the NFC South cellar was an inconsistent running game, which averaged nearly 30 yards less on the ground last season than in 2015.
Adding a dynamic presence like Stanford's Christian McCaffrey would not only add a jolt to the running game, it would also upgrade a receiving corps and return game that lost its best big play threat (Ted Ginn, Jr.) to free agency.
With the 2017 NFL Draft now just days away, here is my updated projection of how the top 32 selections will go.
1. Cleveland Browns
Myles Garrett , DE, Texas A&M: The clear top need in Cleveland is at quarterback, but it would be a stunner if anyone other than Garrett was the first pick. He is simply the best player in the draft. Garrett lived up to his hype at the combine, dazzling with his combination of size (6-feet-4, 272 pounds), power (33 repetitions of 225 pounds), speed (4.64 in the 40) and explosiveness (41-inch vertical).
2. San Francisco 49ers
Solomon Thomas , DL, Stanford Cardinal : Coach Kyle Shanahan was hired to help spark a listless offense that ranked 27th in points and dead last in passing last season. Ignoring better players just to draft a quarterback might only guarantee another poor season in 2017. Thomas is a disrupting force who has drawn comparisons to Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald . He could be the perfect finishing touch for a defensive line currently better prepared to stuff the run than bother rival quarterbacks.
3. Chicago Bears
Jamal Adams , S, LSU Tigers : Safety has long been a sore spot in Chicago, with only one Bears safety (Mike Brown) earning an invitation to the Pro Bowl over the past 20 years. Adams has that kind of potential and is viewed by some as the safest prospect in the draft. He is a tone-setter with a rare combination of instincts, athleticism and intangibles to make an immediate impact on a defense that made strides a year ago but allowed 24.9 points per game, 24th in the NFL.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Leonard Fournette , RB, LSU: Splashy signings in free agency suggest the Jaguars are looking for an immediate difference-maker with this pick. The Cowboys went from last to first in the NFC a year ago in large part because of the stellar play of 2016 No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott . The Jaguars could see a similar bounce with Fournette taking the pressure off young Blake Bortles and the passing game. Fournette was not as impressive in workouts as expected but he is a freakish talent, boasting the most exciting combination of size, speed and power since Adrian Peterson .
5. Tennessee Titans (from Los Angeles Rams)
Marshon Lattimore , CB, Ohio State: The addition of veterans Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien helps but only the most optimistic of Titans fans believes that they can turn a secondary that ranked 31st a year ago into an elite unit. Now if a talent like Lattimore was added to the mix, optimism should be much higher. Lattimore struggled with hamstring injuries early in his career at Ohio State but he was dominant last season, showing the easy agility, acceleration and instincts to project as a future Pro Bowl player.
6. New York Jets
Malik Hooker , S, Ohio State Buckeyes : Last season only two teams (Browns, Lions) had a worse ratio of touchdown passes allowed to interception than the Jets, who surrendered 32 scores and only picked off 10 passes. Given the aggressive nature of defensive-minded head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan's trusted Best Player Available strategy, it is easy to envision the duo falling in love with Hooker, whose range and ball skills (seven interceptions in 2016) could have the Jets flying much higher in 2017.
7. San Diego Chargers
Jonathan Allen , DL, Alabama: The Chargers won big a year ago with Joey Bosa and could be in a similar position this year should Allen fall into their lap. The 6-3, 286-pound Allen has the intangibles the Chargers have long prized and could remind new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley of former Seahawks pupil Michael Bennett with his positional versatility, initial burst and coordinated, powerful hand play.
8. Carolina Panthers
Christian McCaffrey , RB, Stanford: Though he is far from the only one to blame for Carolina's woes on offense, the Panthers' slip last season in running the ball puts the spotlight once again on Jonathan Stewart's struggles with durability. The 13th overall pick of the 2008 draft has only played in 16 regular season games three times over his nine-year career and not since 2011. Pairing him with a dynamic runner, receiver and returner like McCaffrey could be the perfect fit -- and one made easier with Carolina re-hiring assistant coach Lance Murphy, who spent the past three seasons coaching McCaffrey at Stanford.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
Derek Barnett , DE/OLB, Tennessee Volunteers : Adding a young pass rusher to complement veterans Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap is expected to be among the Bengals' top draft day priorities. Barnett lacks the ideal traits that general manager Mike Brown has prioritized in the past but his production (NCAA-best 33 sacks over the past three seasons) against elite competition speaks for itself and he possesses the pro-ready game and work ethic to continue this success in the NFL.
10. Buffalo Bills
O.J. Howard , TE, Alabama Crimson Tide : Whether it be in the form of wide receivers or tight ends, the Bills need to bring in more weapons for re-signed quarterback Tyrod Taylor. After watching Greg Olsen become the Carolina Panthers' most trusted pass catcher while serving as defensive coordinator, new Bills head coach Sean McDermott may see Howard as the better complement to an offense expected to remain centered around the running game.
11. New Orleans Saints
Taco Charlton , DE, Michigan Wolverines : The Saints ranked 27th in the NFL a year ago with just 30 sacks, a real concern given the quarterback talent in the NFC South. Help is on the way with former Arizona Cardinals edge rusher Alex Okafor , but he signed only a one-year deal. It took a while for the light to come on for Charlton at Michigan but he led the Big Ten in sacks a year ago in his first season as a full-time starter. Boasting a terrific combination of burst, bend and length, Charlton has Pro Bowl potential.
12. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia)
Mitch Trubisky , QB, North Carolina Tar Heels : The splashy trade for Brock Osweiler is not likely to keep Cleveland from drafting another quarterback. Trubisky is obviously a roll of the dice given that he only started one year for the Tar Heels, but he showed impressive accuracy, athleticism and pocket awareness in 2016. The Ohio native possesses the combination of upside and intangibles that Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson prioritized with their draft picks a year ago.
13. Arizona Cardinals
Patrick Mahomes II , QB, Texas Tech Red Raiders : The Cardinals have publicly stated their intention to find a young quarterback to groom under Carson Palmer and Mahomes would seem to be a perfect fit in Bruce Arians' aggressive passing attack. After starring in Tech's shotgun-heavy Air Raid offense, Mahomes is undeniably a project, but he has the gunslinger mentality and arm that project well to the next level.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota)
Marlon Humphrey , CB, Alabama: Last year's starters Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll are gone and free agent addition Patrick Robinson was only signed to a one-year deal. Humphrey, the top-rated corner on some boards, is an NFL legacy with a rare combination of size (6-0, 197 pounds) and speed (4.41). At just 20 years old, Humphrey appears to be just scratching the surface of his potential.
15. Indianapolis Colts
Haason Reddick, ILB, Temple: The Colts have needs all over the defense and could see the versatile and explosive Reddick as immediate help at a number of positions. Reddick recorded 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks as an edge rusher for the Owls in 2016 before wowing first at the Senior Bowl as a more traditional linebacker and then at the combine, recording a ridiculous 4.52 second time in the 40-yard dash and 11'1" broad jump at 6-1, 234 pounds.
16. Baltimore Ravens
Mike Williams , WR, Clemson Tigers : The Ravens need help at edge rusher and offensive tackle, as well, but general manager Ozzie Newsome may have a hard time letting a prototypical split end like the 6-4, 218-pound Williams slip any further. His ability to box out defenders and win contested passes could make him a quick favorite for Joe Flacco, who lost similarly sure-handed receivers Steve Smith, Sr. and Kamar Aiken over the offseason.
17. Washington Redskins
Reuben Foster , LB, Alabama: The Redskins surrendered nearly 120 rushing yards per game in 2016 and only three teams (the Chargers, Bills and 49ers) allowed more than their 19 rushing touchdowns. Foster was kicked out of the combine after a run-in with medical personnel, but his talent is undeniable. With remarkable closing speed and the physicality to intimidate, he could prove a steal at this point in the draft.
18. Tennessee Titans
John Ross , WR, Washington Huskies : With Marcus Mariota's speed and the two-headed monster of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry in the backfield, Tennessee clearly has a run-first strategy on offense. That said, the incredible straight-line speed of Ross would force opposing defensive coordinators to think twice before crowding the box. Further, Ross would add juice to a special teams unit that ranked 20th a season ago in punt return average (7.9) and 26th on kickoffs (19.1).
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dalvin Cook , RB, Florida State Seminoles : With Doug Martin facing a three-game suspension for PED use and coming off of his third injury-shortened season, the Bucs understandably could be looking for help at running back. Reuniting Cook with former FSU teammate Jameis Winston could be the perfect solution. Cook has off-field and durability concerns of his own but he is an ideal fit in this offense as a slashing runner with terrific hands.
20. Denver Broncos
Ryan Ramczyk , OT, Wisconsin Badgers : On paper, the signings of former Raiders right tackle Menelik Watson and Dallas Cowboys guard Ronald Leary make up for the decision to let starting left tackle Russell Okung walk in free agency but reality could prove different. Ramczyk has the feet to handle blindside duties and at 6-6, 310 pounds, he has the girth to move people in the running game as well.
21. Detroit Lions
T.J. Watt , DE, Wisconsin: Aggressive moves in free agency signal that Detroit has high expectations in 2017. A healthy Ziggy Ansah for the entire season would certainly go a long way toward boosting the pass rush but he could use some help. Watt is surprisingly polished given that he began his career at tight end, showing the instincts and refined hand play to make an immediate impact opposite Ansah, who led the NFC with 14.5 sacks when healthy in 2015.
22. Miami Dolphins
Forrest Lamp , G, Western Kentucky: Trading away starting left tackle Branden Albert (to Jacksonville) says a lot about the Dolphins' confidence in 2016 first-round pick LaremyTunsil. While Tunsil should have no problem re-acclimating to tackle after starring at left guard last season, his absence inside could be an issue. Lamp looks like a plug-and-play solution after a seamless transition inside to guard at the Senior Bowl.
23. New York Giants
David Njoku, TE, Miami (Fla.): Veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall gives the Giants a physically imposing pass-catcher to complement playmakers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard but it is hard to imagine Eli Manning complaining if another set of hands was added to the mix. The 20-year old Njoku is still very much a work in progress but scouts are enamored with the 6-4, 246 pounder's ability to create mismatches in the passing game.
24. Oakland Raiders
Malik McDowell , DT, Michigan State Spartans : The Raiders' rise to the playoffs is directly attributable to their explosive offense, but if the club is to take the next step -- and remain a consistent postseason threat -- help must be on the way for a defense that surrendered 375 yards per game, 26th in the NFL. In his postseason wrapup, Jack Del Rio stressed the need to create more disruption on the interior, which is what the 6-5, 285-pound McDowell does best.
25. Houston Texans
Deshaun Watson , QB, Clemson: Getting rid of the colossal Brock Osweiler contract was a relief in itself, but unless a veteran replacement is found, quarterback is the top priority again in Houston. Watson's ability to deliver in the clutch intrigues scouts, but he also threw an FBS-worst 30 interceptions over the past two seasons, making him a polarizing player among scouts. At this point in the draft, however, GM Rick Smith might see him as simply too talented to pass up.
26. Seattle Seahawks
Garett Bolles , OT, Utah Utes : It is no secret that the Seahawks' top priority over the offseason would be addressing a leaky offensive line and the club made several moves, including adding former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel in free agency. If the team was confident that Joeckel was the long-term answer at left tackle, however, Seattle likely would have given him more than a one-year "show me" deal. Bolles is a work in progress after only starting one year at Utah and comes with some character red flags. He has the highest upside of any lineman in this class, however, boasting the light feet and competitive nature to project as a future standout left tackle.
27. Kansas City Chiefs
Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida: The Chiefs have some massive shoes to fill up the middle with nose guard Dontari Poe walking in free agency and the 34-year old Derrick Johnson recuperating from his second season-ending Achilles tear over the past three years. Davis struggled with injuries, himself, during his time at Florida but his speed and explosiveness is clearly first round caliber.
28. Dallas Cowboys
Charles Harris , DE/OLB, Missouri Tigers : The Cowboys' gambles on recent character concerns at pass rusher have not paid off and adding a play-maker to this unit should be a top priority. Harris has the burst, bend and lethal spin move to wreak havoc off the edge and, after only joining the sport as a junior in high school, he possesses the upside for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to develop.
29. Green Bay Packers
Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State: With clear needs at edge rusher, cornerback and running back, Ted Thompson has plenty of options with this pick with splashy athletes like UCLA's Takkarist McKinley and even Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon possibly in the mix. Conley, however, is the cleaner prospect on and off the field and fills a clear need with the sticky cover skills to help immediate.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
Jabrill Peppers , S, Michigan: Due in part to the flashy play of rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis, the Steelers made strides in the secondary last season. More help is needed, however. Asked to play all over the field at Michigan, Peppers is a polarizing prospect in the scouting community but his instincts, aggression and terrific open-field tackling might remind GM Kevin Colbert of former Steelers' great Troy Polamalu.
31. Atlanta Falcons
Budda Baker , FS, Washington: After surrendering a Super Bowl-record 466 passing yards to Tom Brady , no one should be surprised if the Falcons opt to reinforce the secondary. At just 5-10, 195 pounds, Baker does not have ideal size but Dan Quinn has previously been willing to overlook that at free safety with the 5-9, 185-pound Ricardo Allen currently starting in Atlanta. Quinn also previously worked with Earl Thomas (5-10, 202) in Seattle. Baker has more range and quickness than Allen, projecting as a traditional centerfielder who can drop down to help at nickel, as well.
32. New Orleans Saints (from New England)
Adoree Jackson, CB, Southern Cal: The Saints ranked dead last in pass defense in 2016 and may opt to trade this or another pick for New England Patriots' star cornerback Malcolm Butler in an attempt to fix the issue. Until that occurs, adding talent in the secondary is likely New Orleans' top priority. The reigning Thorpe Award winner is raw but is a natural playmaker with the speed and ball skills New Orleans is currently lacking in the secondary and in the return game.
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