The college football season is upon us, which gives the green light to remove the "way too early" caveat and start analyzing the 2018 NFL draft class in earnest. Let's kick things off with a mock draft before the colossal showdown between Florida State and Alabama in Atlanta on Saturday night.
While the potential class of quarterbacks for 2018 is the talk of the scouting world -- and rightfully so -- this mock draft takes a different view at the top selections, especially those in the top five.
Yes, Sam Darnold was spectacular down the stretch for USC last season, but that run of amazing play will be difficult to improve upon or even match this year. Meanwhile, Josh Rosen will have to make a large leap from his disappointing sophomore season, and Lamar Jackson has plenty of question marks as a passer and similar accuracy concerns to that of Wild West gunslinger Josh Allen. Luke Falk will enter the NFL from a gadgety, pass-happy system. Who does that leave among the elite signal-caller prospects? Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph -- the experienced, 6-foot-4 pocket passer who threw 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 2016.
Because the NFL season hasn't started, we're using SportsLine's projected win totals for the draft order here (last year's records are in parentheses).
1. Cleveland Browns (1-15)
Connor Williams, OT, Texas: Joe Thomas will be 33 next season, and the Browns could trade him to a contender while he still has high value, release him and save $10 million, or leave him at left tackle for the second year of the DeShone Kizer Experiment. Even if they choose the latter, they need a boost at right tackle, and Williams has a game reminiscent of Thomas when he entered the NFL in 2007.
2. San Francisco 49ers (2-14)
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State: For a team that hasn't contended in a while, the 49ers' defensive front seven is loaded, especially since using three straight first-round picks on defensive linemen. Now Kyle Shanahan gets his quarterback. There's a great deal of Matt Ryan in the 6-foot-4 Rudolph, and Shanahan could prefer his pocket mastery and experience over the potential of Sam Darnold.
3. New York Jets (5-11)
Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: The Jets are the team most routinely mocked a quarterback at this stage, but think of how much draft capital they've recently used on the position ... to no avail, mind you. Instead of throwing a rookie quarterback -- albeit an ultra-talented one like Darnold -- into a brutal situation, Gang Green takes from its past to begin building an offensive environment conducive to signal-caller success for the long haul. In 2006, New York selected left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson over the likes of Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler. McGlinchey would've been a mid- to late first-round selection a year ago, but he improves some subtle weaknesses and is a clean, Ferguson-like offensive tackle prospect in 2018.
4. Los Angeles Rams (4-12)
Derwin James, S, Florida State: The Rams have two underrated safeties in Mo Alexander and Lamarcus Joyner. The only problem: They're both set it hit free agency after this season. In all likelihood, at least one will test the market. Enter Derwin James, who's basically a safety prospect built in a lab by defensive coordinators. He's enormous, fast, explosive, and tackles as well as he covers. He's Jalen Ramsey 2.0.
5. Chicago Bears (3-13)
Arden Key, DE, LSU: Four of the Bears' five 2017 picks were offensive players, and playing in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, they need defenders who pressure the quarterback. Key isn't quite as freakishly constructed as Myles Garrett, yet his burst off the ball at 6-foot-6 is scary. Adding an edge rusher is the most glaring need for Chicago. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should find some Aldon Smith in Key's skill set.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
Sam Darnold, QB, USC: Darnold stays in Los Angeles. If he enters the draft, he'll only be 20 years old, so he'll likely need a year of schooling in practice, training camp and the preseason. Philip Rivers will be 37 during the 2018 season, the first year the team can save money if they release him. Although he has been a pillar of reliability during his Chargers career, L.A. is just planning for the future with this selection. With immense talent, a unique delivery and some gunslinger DNA, Darnold is comparable to the prospect Rivers was when he turned pro in 2004.
7. Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: With 2016 first-rounder Laremy Tunsil locked into the left tackle spot, the Dolphins need help on the interior of their offensive line. Nelson needs a touch of polish in pass protection, but he's NFL-ready as a run-blocker. His size, physical nature and mean streak make for the precise combination Miami wants to inject into its offensive front.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Running back was a trendy mock draft selection for the Buccaneers in 2017, but they instead went with awesome tight end prospect O.J. Howard to add to their already stacked offensive skill-position group. The NFC South is all about offense, and while a defender would probably fill a larger need here, Guice is simply too dynamic of a prospect for Tampa Bay not to pick. He's a super-charged bulldozer with special agility, balance and vision.
9. Detroit Lions (9-7)
Harold Landry, DE, Boston College: What does the future hold for Ziggy Ansah? He has had trouble staying healthy and is in the final year of his rookie contract. Even if the Lions decide to retain their 2013 first-round selection, they need more juice off the edge. Landry is a highly productive defensive end who wins against offensive tackles in a variety of ways.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)
James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State: Another popular quarterback landing spot in mock drafts, the Jaguars actually steer clear of the signal-caller position in this hypothetical. They're going to carry over around $40 million in cap space to 2018, and we all know Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone aren't exactly the types to display much trust in rookie quarterbacks. Instead, Jacksonville attacks the quarterback free-agent market, in hopes of maximizing its contender potential while an expensive defense is still intact. Maybe Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo? Because of that, the Jaguars add an experienced and electric wideout in Washington, a player who will remind Coughlin of a mix between Odell Beckham Jr. and Hakeem Nicks with his size, sterling collegiate resume and downfield speed.
11. Buffalo Bills (7-9)
Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: After years of prioritizing speed over size at wideout, the Bills under new GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott have a new prototype at the receiver position -- big with impressive high-pointing ability. The 40-yard dash time isn't nearly as important for Buffalo as it once was. Sutton is 6-foot-3, around 220 pounds, and routinely wins at the catch point, even with smaller defenders draped all over him. With Sutton, Zay Jones and potentially Jordan Matthews if he's extended, the Bills will be difficult to stop in the red zone.
12. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State: Vontae Davis has had a somewhat overlooked career with the Colts, as he's been a lockdown man-to-man corner for years. He's in the final year of his contract and will be 30 in 2018, so Indianapolis has to address the future at the position. McFadden is a former five-star recruit who has been a ball-hawking cornerback at Florida State. At his size -- 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds -- he can match up with the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Corey Davis and Allen Robinson within the division.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: The Eagles had a short-term vision at the running back spot in 2017, as they signed LeGarrette Blount to a one-year deal. They like their complementary runners -- Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey -- but they can't watch Penn State product Barkley get past them in this draft. He is a low-center-of-gravity feature back with power, shiftiness, and next-level vision both near the line of scrimmage and in the open field.
14. New Orleans Saints (7-9)
Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State: Lewis is the latest edition of top-notch defensive front seven players from Ohio State, and he's the ideal fit in New Orleans, a team in desperate need of a jolt on the edge. Sure, Cam Jordan has become an elite pass-rusher, but he could use some help. Lewis is in for a gigantic year in the Big Ten and has already accumulated 16 sacks in his last two seasons in Columbus.
15. Denver Broncos (9-7)
Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson: The Broncos defense was at its best not only when it had Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware flying around each corner but when they dominated on the interior as well. While Denver used a second-round selection in 2017 on defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker, he's more of an end than a tackle. Wilkins is a make-no-mistake-about-it inside rusher who also thrives as a run-stopper due to his brute strength and the force he creates with his burst off the snap.
16. Washington Redskins (8-7-1)
Cameron Smith, ILB, USC: Still operating a 3-4 base defense, the Redskins need size and power at their inside linebacker positions. Zach Brown is a nice stop-gap, but he's playing on a one-year deal. Mason Foster had a career year in 2016 but now enters the last year of the two-year pact he signed with Washington and will be 29 in 2018. Smith is the ideal 3-4 inside linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds with striking ability against the run and adequate fluidity in coverage.
17. New York Giants (11-5)
Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma: More than anything else, the Giants need offensive tackle help. Ereck Flowers has been a colossal bust on the left side, and if anything, New York might look to salvage him on the inside. Brown is a mammoth offensive tackle who plays with consistent power and has manned the left side of an Oklahoma offense that loves airing it out as much as any program in the country.
18. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Bradley Chubb, OLB, NC State: Bradley Chubb is a rock-solid edge-rusher who has become a dominant force for the Wolfpack. In 2016, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound monster accumulated 10 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. He's going to wreak havoc in the ACC this season and continue to rise up draft boards. Titans pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are still productive but will count as a combined $17.5 million in 2018 and would carry just $2.75 million in dead cap if released. Even if they're both retained or only one is let go, Tennessee would be smart to plan for the future at edge-rusher.
19. Oakland Raiders (12-4)
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas: GM Reggie McKenzie has built a juggernaut on offense. On defense, the Raiders have Khalil Mack, an absolute cornerstone, but he needs some semblance of help. Jefferson is a quick-twitch, springy linebacker capable of doing everything the today's NFL asks of second-level defenders.
20. Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1)
Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Bruce Arians is infatuated with the vertical passing game, which means he has an affinity for strong-armed quarterbacks. Allen has a Carson Wentz-like ascension up draft boards and lands in the ideal situation in the desert -- he'll back up Carson Palmer for a season while learning the nuances of the position from Arians, then take over in 2019.
21. Cincinnati Bengals (6-9-1)
Kendall Joseph, LB, Clemson: Playing behind Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence in Clemson's defense, Joseph is in for a super-impactful 2017 season. He already surpassed the 100-tackle plateau in 2016 and has all the athleticism needed to flourish as a linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Vontaze Burfict has an uncertain future in Cincinnati, so Marvin Lewis and Co. grab the best linebacker available at this juncture.
22. Cleveland Browns (1-15) from Houston Texans
Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama: This wouldn't be a proper mock draft without an Alabama defensive back in Round 1. In fact, five Crimson Tide defensive backs have be snagged in the first round in the last six drafts, an astounding figure. Fitzpatrick is long and athletic with plenty of strength. He boasts some versatility too -- after coming to Alabama as a cornerback, he played some safety in 2016. He'll move back to corner this season on another -- you guessed it -- loaded defense in Tuscaloosa. If the Browns don't trade Joe Haden soon, they'll almost assuredly let him go after this season, when they can save nearly $11 million on the cap.
23. Minnesota Vikings (8-8)
Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State: The Vikings have the immovable Linval Joseph at nose tackle, and with Nnadi, they get a penetrating defensive tackle to play next to him. This Florida State product is an NFL-ready interior pass-rusher.
24. Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Adonis Alexander, CB, Virginia Tech: James Bradberry is one of the biggest cornerbacks with the longest arms in the NFL, and the Panthers like that in their outside defenders. Alexander is right around 6-foot-3 has possesses quality play-making ability -- he had six interceptions in his first two years at Virginia Tech. With Bradberry and Alexander, Carolina has the size and athleticism to deal with large wideouts Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Mike Evans in the NFC South.
25. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Josh Sweat, OLB, Florida State: The Packers are barren at the edge-rusher spot, especially with Clay Matthews in the twilight of his career. Sweat, another Florida State product, is a nice fit in Green Bay's 3-4 alignment at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. He had seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 2016 and is primed for a banner year in the Seminoles defense.
26. Buffalo Bills (7-9) from Kansas City Chiefs
Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan: Based on the Bills' 2017 draft class, Sean McDermott is a fan of prospects with loads of collegiate experience and mega production. Though Hurst hasn't started much at Michigan, he has already appeared in 28 games for the Wolverines and registered 19 tackles for loss in that time. We remember how the Panthers prioritized defensive linemen while Buffalo's new GM Brandon Beane was in Carolina, and he continues that trend in western New York. Add in the fact that Kyle Williams is at the end of his underappreciated career, and Hurst checks all the boxes for the Bills.
27. Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: The Cowboys lost Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in free agency this offseason, and Orlando Scandrick is 30 years old. Yes, Dallas added cornerbacks in Round 2 and Round 3 of the 2017 draft, but in a division with the Giants, Redskins, and Eagles receiving corps, you can't have enough corners if you're the Cowboys. Though not quite 6-foot, Alexander is feisty and can play on the boundary or in the slot. He had five interceptions a season ago along with nine pass breakups.
28. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State: Jake Matthews has not lived up to his predraft billing as a decade-long franchise left tackle. Although the Falcons picked up his fifth-year option, they can cut him without any cap penalty before the 2018 league year begins. Rankin is a SEC-tested left tackle who even spent time at center this spring for Mississippi State.
29. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: The Ravens need as much help at wide receiver as they can get, especially with Mike Wallace in the last year of his deal and Jeremy Maclin and Breshad Perriman only signed through 2018. Actually, in Cain, Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome could see some Wallace-like characteristics. Last season, Cain averaged 19.1 yards per reception at Clemson.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Micah Kiser, ILB, Virginia: Historically, Steelers defenses are known for their stellar linebacker play, and while Pittsburgh has the superbly talented Ryan Shazier in the middle of its 3-4, this pick would provide him a thumping running mate in Kiser. The Virginia product has racked up a ridiculous 250 tackles in the last two seasons with the Cavaliers.
31. Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
Trey Adams, OT, Washington: To some, this will be too early for Adams, but the Seahawks aren't afraid to make "outside the box" picks in Round 1. Seattle will easily get many up-close looks at the University of Washington left tackle all season. GM John Schneider could fall in love with Adams' size -- 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds -- and length.
32. New England Patriots (14-2)
Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: New England is always the draft wild card, and although there's a much more glaring need at edge-rusher, Bill Belichick goes best player available with Kirk. Also, it's not as if the Patriots are loaded at receiver in the long term. Julian Edelman will be coming off an ACL tear, Malcolm Mitchell is battling injuries, Danny Amendola is set to be a free agent after 2017, Chris Hogan is signed through 2018, and the Patriots will have to make a decision on Brandin Cooks, who is young and will likely sign a multiyear extension to stay with Tom Brady. With Kirk in the mix, New England will boast a pair of super-slippery yards-after-catch wideouts with impressive downfield speed.