Draft tiers: Breaking down top 43 players into three prime groups

We live in a world dominated by mock drafts, but there is more than one way to break down the first round.

Mock drafts are a crapshoot, with one unexpected pick or a few trades throwing off any projections and sending the draft off in a direction even the most experienced and astute general manager could not have predicted. (Still, I'll file a new mock at some point, probably Wednesday.) Instead, I think it can be just as interesting to break down the draft by position and by tier.

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For instance, I always try to solicit as much opinion as possible from scouts, decision makers and agents on which positions they expect to produce the most first-round picks, and then try to come up with floors or ceilings for particular players based on certain scenarios. And, also, to try to divide the prospects into tiers -- guys you think have a legit chance to go in the top half of the first round (picks 1-16), guys you figure go somewhere in the first round, and then another group of tweeners that could go late first or early second.

At this point, my best guess at the top 32 picks breaks down as follows:

Defensive end/LBs: (Some OLBs are really DEs, depending on scheme, prompting me to lump them together.) 13

Offensive line: 7

Cornerback: 4

Wide receiver: 3

Quarterback: 3

Safety: 1

Tight end: 1

Running back: 0

I'm banking on a few teams trading into the late first round for passers, given all of the needs at that position. But without that phenomenon, I would agree with the masses that perhaps only one quarterback goes in the first round. I went back and forth on receivers, but I'm thinking the real run on them now starts in the second round given how bunched together this class is at that position in many eyes.

There is a lot of value at safety as well, and I oscillated on going with one or two at that position, but enough teams could use them late in the first round that I ended up going with two.

Regardless of what the final numbers are, the reality is linemen will carry the day in this first round and could easily account for 20 of the top 32 selections. As to which players are most likely to fall into which range, let's start with the top 16, and players who I'd suggest have a good chance of landing there (with the caveat being this will most definitely be a draft of surprises and teams will have very different valuations on particular prospects).

In this top group, I'd list 20 players in all, and size them up this way by position, starting with the skill guys, an area that will be very thin in the first half of the first round. So, I'm obviously not saying all of these guys will go top 16, but I expect these names to comprise the bulk of those picks.

Elite tier

Quarterback: 2

Geno Smith, West Virginia; Ryan Nassib, Syracuse

The teams picking 2-4 have spent a lot of time on Smith, seen as the best quarterback in this draft, and they all have a need. In the end, of this group -- Jacksonville, Oakland and Philadelphia -- I'm not sure any of them take him, though none would surprise me if they did. The Raiders are a real wild card here, and things get very interesting with the Bills as well, who pick eighth in the first round. Nassib is definitely in play here, sources said. He played for Bills coach Doug Marrone at Syracuse, and I'm considering him in this group only because of that unique tie to the Bills. Otherwise, his only shot of going in the first round is if a team trades into the bottom portion of that round.

Wide Receiver: 1

Tavon Austin, West Virginia

He is the most explosive player in this draft, and if he was a smidge taller he'd be going even higher. As it stands, he could be a trade target in the top 10; the Jets like him at 9 and there is no way he would get past the Rams at 16, although I don't know anyone who thinks he'll even be there at 16.

Offensive line: 6

Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M; Eric Fisher, Central Michigan; Lane Johnson, Oklahoma; D.J. Fluker, Alabama; Chance Warmack, Alabama; Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

Joeckel will be picked first overall barring some unexpected change of heart in Kansas City, and Fisher is highly unlikely to slip past Detroit picking No. 5 overall. If he is on the board when Philly picks at 4, I believe he will be the pick).

If both tackles are gone and the Lions can't trade down, they will consider the guards, Warmack and Cooper, sources said. Titans coach Mike Munchak, himself a former elite offensive lineman, is very high on Cooper, sources said, and he could end up being the first guard selected as well.

The Browns are hoping someone will want to jump in front of Arizona, picking seventh, and work a trade for Cleveland to move down. The Cardinals are extremely high on Fluker, sources said, and Johnson is under consideration there as well. San Diego likes Johnson at 11th overall, and if the Dolphins don't trade for Chiefs tackle Branden Albert, then I don't see him falling past 12th overall.


Dion Jordan, Oregon; Ezekiel Ansah, BYU; Barkevious Mingo, LSU; Jarvis Jones, Georgia

Jordan is seen as the best of this group by people I trust and the one of this bunch who could crack the top 10, if not the top five. (His former coach, Chip Kelly, is now running the Eagles). I don't see him falling from the top 10, although Ansah's rise likely won't end up being as meteoric as some projected given how little tape there is with him playing college ball for just one year. There are lots of first-time GMs out there and they want safe.

Mingo gives some teams pause with his lack of girth, and they wonder if he can hold his weight up. But the production was there in the best conference in college football, and he still could be the second of this group taken in the teens. Two DEs/OLBs are rising fast -- Datone Jones of UCLA and Tank Carradine of Florida State -- and I flirted with putting them top 16, but figure they go between 14 and 20ish.

Jarvis Jones has top-10 ability, and depending on how teams feel about his spine condition, he still may go very close to that range in the end. I don't see him slipping into the 20s, to be honest, and the Steelers are very comfortable with him at 17. Frankly, I see them taking Jones before I see them taking one of the defensive tackles in that range.

Defensive tackles: 3

Sharrif Floyd, Florida; Star Lotulelei, Utah; Sheldon Richardson, Missouri

Floyd could go as high as second overall, and it wouldn't be a surprise. I don't see him falling out of the top 10 since he's viewed as one of the cleanest players in this draft and the best of the tackles. Lotulelei's medical condition from the combine was a short-term setback, but he has a clean bill of health and Carolina, picking 14th, has shown a lot of interest, sources said, and that may be his floor. Richardson is a hot commodity as well and could be targeted by a team trying to trade up from the back of the first round like Atlanta.

Cornerback: 3

Dee Milliner, Alabama; D.J. Hayden, Houston; Desmond Trufant, Washington

Milliner is the top corner, and the rumblings about his rehab from shoulder surgery are largely overblown. I'd be shocked if he's not the first corner taken, and even if he "slips" -- and I see him going to Cleveland sixth right now -- it won't be far outside the top 10. Too many people see him as far and away the best player available at a key position that many teams need. The Jets at 13th overall -- if they stay there -- could be his floor with Darrelle Revis just dealt to the Bucs.

Hayden's heart condition was literally life-threatening, but few players are rising faster now with his medicals looking good. Trufant is a possible trade target, too, in the middle of this round. There isn't much separating a group of 3-5 corners after Milliner, according to scouts I spoke to, with Xavier Rhodes also in this group, and frankly I'd be surprised if more than two corners go top 16. But I made the cutoff three.

So, we'll see how many of these 19 end up in the top 16 and what my batting average is here.

Second tier

Group 2 is players I expect to go in the first round, likely in the latter half, though some of them, like Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro and Florida State DE Bjoern Werner, could slip into the top 15.

I have listed 12 players in this group, which would amount to essentially 16 draft slots, and things definitely get a little more tricky in this unpredictable draft the deeper we go:

Quarterback: 1

Matt Barkley, USC

The pedigree is too good, the need is too high. I understand his issues this past season and concerns on arm strength, but QBs get pushed up draft boards. This year will be no exception. Nassib goes in this category as a Bills target if Buffalo doesn't take a QB at 8, and Jacksonville is high on Barkley, from what I hear. If, for instance, Cleveland, Oakland, Buffalo, Philly, Jacksonville and the New York Jets all pass on taking a passer with their top picks, then the competition to get their guy will be steep.

Wide Receiver: 1

Justin Hunter, Tennessee

Hunter could be a game changer, and with other receivers falling for varying reasons, I believe he could now be the second pass catcher to come off the board.

I think caution will prevent a quick run on these guys in the teens, but a few will be drafted. I'm not ready to proclaim anyone from that group other than Hunter, however, and I don't see him getting by needy teams like the Rams and Vikings.

At least one other probably gets tabbed, but I'll delve deeper into that in the third grouping of players.

Tight end: 1

Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame

He is the most complete and most athletic tight end in the draft, and while others may be right there in pass-catching ability, they have blocking deficiencies. It's by no means a lock that any tight end will go in the first round, but his talent will be hard for all 32 teams to pass on. Green Bay, for instance, will follow its board even though it has a slew of tight ends. But Jermichael Finley is on a year-to-year basis, and the Packers are always drafting receivers -- even when they're loaded at that position.

The Giants have a need there but tend to take guys lower and let Eli Manning develop them, so I don't suspect they go tight end here.

Offensive line: 0

There are some worthy candidates but not one guy I can put into the definite category here, so I will touch on some OLs in the next group.


Datone Jones, UCLA; Tank Carradine, Florida State; Bjoern Werner, Florida State

With many pass rushers falling, Carradine is a late riser. I wouldn't be shocked if either of them cracked the top half of the first round because some teams prefer one of them to Mingo. Carradine's recovery is going well -- he ran well last week at his pro day, and the Saints, Steelers and others in that range will think long and hard about him (the Colts have done a lot of work on him as well). Jones is considered by some the best edge player next to Jordan; one scout who did a lot of work called him "beastly," and even a team without an obvious need at his spot could come calling (Giants, Broncos). Bottom line is I have heard enough good things about these two from people I trust that I believe they end up surprising people with how high they go. Werner was once talked about in the top 10, but that always seemed a bit inflated, though he, too, will be in play in that 14-25 range.

Defensive tackle: 2

Jesse Williams, Alabama; Sylvester Williams, North Carolina

Few are talking about Jesse Williams, but he is a nose tackle fit for a lot of teams, and I could see him sneaking into the first round. Injuries kept him from the All-Star games, but he has the size, speed and SEC pedigree to shine, and without the injury setbacks we would have heard a lot more about him at the first half of this round. Sylvester Williams to Dallas as the man to replace Jay Ratliff makes sense to a lot of scouts as well. At least two of this group will end up going first round and perhaps all three. (If we start getting to 12-13 DL/OLBs in the first round, then to me that indicates trades for QBs late in the first round did not develop.)

ILB: 1

Manti Te'o, Notre Dame

He has his faults and they are beyond well-documented, but he had a heck of a college career before that Alabama game and enough teams have become comfortable enough with him that I expect him to go in the first round despite the knocks. Minnesota in particular is a landing spot, and Chicago is at least considering he could be the guy to take over for Brian Urlacher. Baltimore would think about him at 32, but in a perfect world the Ravens are moving down, with plenty of players at need positions available in the second round. Given the devaluation of this position in the modern passing game, unless you have real standout pass-rush ability, the odds of getting drafted high diminish.

Cornerback: 1

Xavier Rhodes, Florida State

I already have three going possibly in the top 16, and while there are some other candidates I suspect could still go first round, I'm not ready to put them in the second category. Some evaluators believe Trufant and Rhodes are very close in ability.

Safety: 1

Kenny Vaccaro, Texas

This position group is another where opinions are all over the place. There are several prospects I'd put in the third tier, but Vaccaro is getting attention from teams in the middle of the first round. I have hard time thinking he falls all the way out of it, while if a few teams trade out, then the run on safeties will get pushed down.

So, that brings us to 30 players out of a possible 32. I am leaving a spot open for a WR and an OL out of these first two groups, by my projections. This third group will be players who seem to be candidates for low first or high second, depending on trades, a run on a certain position, need, etc.

Third tier

Quarterback: 0

EJ Manuel from FSU, Tyler Wilson from Arkansas and Mike Glennon from NC State all could end up going in the second round, but I've already been pretty generous in how many quarterbacks I see going high from a pedestrian class. I expect these three to go on the second day of the draft but would not be surprised if someone moved into the late first round for them.

Offensive line: 2

Justin Pugh, Syracuse; Menelik Watson, Florida State

There are enough teams picking at the end of the round that could use a tackle -- Cincinnati, Green Bay, Baltimore, Atlanta -- that you have to consider a few more tackles going after the initial run in the top 12. Both of these players were seen as fringe first-rounders awhile back but have gained momentum and are intriguing possibilities to several teams. I'm not sure both end up going in the first round but suspect at least one does. One of these two will be that seventh OL in the first round (again, assuming I get that number right).

Running back: 0

I still believe that UCLA's Johnathan Franklin could be the first back taken, although in the second round. Eddie Lacy won't get by the Steelers in the second round if he falls that far, but his slow 40 times have given teams pause, and there likely won't be a reason for anyone to reach up in this draft for a runner.

Tight end: 0

Stanford's Zach Ertz is a dynamic pass-catcher and playmaker, and some could make the case he squeezes into the first round. But to me he's going into the second-round category.

Wide receiver: 3

Robert Woods, USC; Keenan Allen, Cal; DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson

A lot was made of the time the Rams, with two first-round picks, spent before the draft with Hopkins, but there are concerns he is a possession guy, and that may be too high for him. Allen is still recovering from injury and ran terribly slow, but some scouts see Anquan Boldin in his film, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Rams or Vikings took him with their second pick in the first round. Woods is in that same mix. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder here, and particularly what kind of receiver skill set a team is coveting, but the spread formations taking hold forces more of these guys on to the field and creates more need, so I ended up projecting four in total going in Round 1. I just don't see Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round given all of the knocks on his adaptability to the NFL and football IQ. There could be a run on these guys right at the top of the second round, and West Virginia product Stedman Bailey is generating late heat in the second round as well.


Margus Hunt, SMU

He could end up going before some of the other pass-rushers and has everything you could look for in terms of what he can put together in a workout. He is loaded with potential and was an elite track-and-field athlete in his native Estonia. A team like the Pats could be a perfect spot, with them willing to gamble on upside production, and if he does slip out of the first round I don't imagine he lasts very long. I just don't see guys like Damontre Moore falling in this range given his issues with weight, strength and speed -- what is the best position for him? -- and especially considering all of the other available options. Arthur Brown, an LB out of Kansas State, almost cracks this group for me as well, but I'd have to slide him in the second-round category for now.

Defensive tackle: 2

John Jenkins, Georgia; Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State

Jenkins looks like he could be a long-term replacement for Justin Smith with the 49ers, and I don't rule that out at all. He's had weight issues but has some unique athleticism for his size when he is on his game. Hankins offers versatility, and if as many tackles start flying off the board as I expect, then that run could go quite deep.

Cornerback: 3

Jamar Taylor, Boise State; Blidi Wreh-Wilson, UConn; Robert Alford, SE Louisiana

Much of this could depend on how high the first three corners land, but there could be surprises at this position. Teams were spending a lot of time in rural Louisiana working out Alford, and my suspicion on most of these guys is second round, but a first-round selection for any of them wouldn't be a huge upset. There will be plenty of "what the heck" moments in this draft, similar to Jacksonville taking Tyson Alualu a few years back.

Safety: 2

Jonathan Cyprien, FIU; Eric Reid, LSU

There is plenty of need at the bottom of the first round, with the Ravens losing two starting safeties and the 49ers losing one star safety. Seeing one of these guys even end up in the 20s with a team like the Bengals wouldn't be a major surprise, either. It's that kind of wide-open draft.

So that gives me 13 players in this third category, for a total of 43 players for 32 picks. And, if this draft is like most others, there will be a few names I haven't mentioned who get called out by Commissioner Goodell. But this is my best effort to draw some delineation in the early part of the draft, and where certain players might fall.

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Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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