It's been a long couple of months since Super Bowl LI, but the NFL Draft is finally here. And while the Patriots don't have a pick in Thursday night's first round, New England faithful shouldn't tune out the action. Here's a mock of how I think the first round will go, complete with some analysis on each pick. I chose not to include trades, but I did make a note for picks where I thought a trade might be likely.
1. Cleveland Browns: DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
This is a layup for the organization that needs it most. Garrett is one of the best blue-chip prospects of the last decade, and he can revitalize a mediocre Cleveland pass rush.
2. San Francisco 49ers: S Jamal Adams, LSU
A lot of analysts think Leonard Fournette or Solomon Thomas will be the call here, but the 49ers' needs at running back and defensive line aren't as pressing as the secondary: San Fran has Carlos Hyde in the backfield and has invested its last two first-round picks along the D-line. In contrast, the secondary is a mess. Eric Reid is promising and Jimmie Ward can play the slot, but strong safety is a major question mark. Adams can fill that hole and anchor the back end of Kyle Shanahan's defense with outstanding speed and ferocious hitting--something that new GM and former NFL safety John Lynch will definitely appreciate.
3. Chicago Bears: DL Solomon Thomas, Stanford
The Bears have holes all over the roster, but Stanford's Solomon Thomas might provide the most immediate impact out of all their options at #3. He excels at both stuffing the run and rushing the passer, and he could help force more turnovers for a Chicago defense starved for playmakers last year. If Thomas is gone, GM Ryan Pace might look to Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore, QB Mitchell Trubisky, or even WR Mike Williams--all would help spark the team and could contribute from Day 1 on either side of the ball.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
The Jaguars spent heavily on defense in free agency once again, which allows them to focus on offense through the draft. Fournette is a one-of-a-kind runner who has draw comparisons to Adrian Peterson for his mean style of play. With TJ Yeldon working as the third-down back, Fournette would help alleviate pressure on young QB Blake Bortles and could open up throwing lanes for a talented young receiving corps by forcing opposing defenses to respect the run game.
5. Tennessee Titans (From LA Rams): CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
Unlike the other teams picking in the top 10, the Titans are on the cusp of the playoffs. Two things are holding them back: wide receiver and cornerback. Clemson's Mike Williams is the most pro-ready receiver prospect, but the Titans already have a solid possession receiver in Rishad Matthews. While GM Jon Robinson brought in former Patriot Logan Ryan to aid the CB situation, the team still needs a clear-cut #1. As one of the most dynamic players in all of college football, Lattimore can step in and be that ace in the secondary from Week 1. However, the Titans are also very close to contention, and they could opt to trade down here and collect picks to add depth later in the draft. If that happens, expect the Browns to trade up and try to nab QB Mitchell Trubisky before the Jets can select him at #6.
6. New York Jets: QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
It's been well established: The Jets are horrendous at drafting quarterbacks. But the team isn't going anywhere without a solid one, and North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky has a Pro Bowl ceiling. His lack of college experience is a red flag, but he could learn the NFL game under veteran Josh McCown before ascending to the starting role. But regardless, it's time for New York to invest some high-quality draft capital at the position instead of taking project players on Days 2 and 3.
7. Los Angeles Chargers: S Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Hooker isn't the hitter that Jamal Adams is, but he can play centerfield with the best of them. New LA D-Coordinator Gus Bradley was raised in the Seattle Cover 3 scheme, which requires an athletic, rangy free safety to succeed. Hooker can be that guy for the Chargers, plain and simple.
8. Carolina Panthers: RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
The Panthers need to upgrade the secondary, but all of the top-tier talent is gone at corner and safety. So instead, they go with a top-tier playmaker on offense to replace the aging Jonathan Stewart and add a new dimension to their offense. With his mind-boggling production and outstanding versatility, McCaffrey can contribute immediately both as a third-down back and slot receiver, while eventually phasing out Stewart entirely.
9. Cincinnati Bengals: DL Jonathan Allen, Alabama
Another layup along the D-line. The Bengals are aging up front, and Allen is one of the draft's top prospects, period. Medical issues are a concern, but the fact is that Allen excelled against the nation's best competition and has the skills to excel at the next level. If he's still available here the Bengals should be ecstatic to land him.
10. Buffalo Bills: QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Despite signing a massive extension before last season, Tyrod Taylor isn't the Bills' long-term answer at quarterback. With a new regime in place, it's time to find that answer, in the form of Clemson's Deshaun Watson. His pedigree is second to none, and he has the winning attributes so many teams look for when drafting a passer. Better yet, Taylor's deal becomes essentially a year-to-year affair after two years--meaning that they can let him start until Watson is ready to take over, then keep him on board to help until the rookie establishes himself without compromising the salary cap.
11. New Orleans Saints: LB Haason Reddick, Temple
Reddick is flying up draft boards because of his athleticism and versatility. For a New Orleans defense that needs help with the pass rush and linebacking corps, he'd be a great fit.If he reaches his ceiling, he could record double-digit sacks and still be an effective three-down 'backer.
12. Cleveland Browns: WR Mike Williams, Clemson
Without a pro-ready QB still on the board, the focus here should be on surrounding whoever ends up under center with offensive weapons. The top two choices are Alabama tight end OJ Howard and Clemson wideout Mike Williams. Williams, with the superior speed and jump-ball ability, is the better value and can help stretch the defense more than Howard, all while providing a reliable possession target for his quarterback.
13. Arizona Cardinals: QB Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
The athletic, gunslinging Mahomes can be the heir apparent to the aging Carson Palmer. Bruce Arians and the Arizona staff are rumored to be in love with the young QB's playmaking ability, but they'll have to refine his mechanics if he wants to become the Birds' quarterback of the future.
14. Philadelphia Eagles: WR John Ross, Washington
With Williams already picked, Ross is the most dynamic wide receiver left on the board. He can take the top off defenses with his record-breaking 4.22 speed, and can be the deep threat the Philly hasn't had since DeSean Jackson. Better yet, he'll immediately become second-year signal caller Carson Wentz' #1 receiver--if the two can forge a bond, they could become one of the most potent QB-receiver duos in the league.
15. Indianapolis Colts: RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Frank Gore is pretty old. Fournette and McCaffrey may be gone, but FSU's Dalvin Cook can contribute as a three-down back as well and round out a potent Indy attack. The biggest concern here is off-field issues, which could cause him to slide beyond #15. But assuming he's still on the board, Cook will be hard to pass up for a Colts squad that lacked a running game at crucial points last year.
16. Baltimore Ravens: WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan
The run on skill players continues with Davis, a small-school standout with big potential. While an injured ankle prevented him from participating in the combine or his pro day, his game tape is among the best in the nation, and he could be the possession receiver that Joe Flacco desperately needs.
17. Washington Redskins: DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
The Redskins were last in the NFL in third-down defense last year, and they just lost DE Trent Murphy to a 4-game suspension to start next year. Barnett was one of the most productive pass rushers in the FBS last year, and while he's not Myles Garrett, he could be a perennial Pro Bowler in his own right. It's hard to argue with 13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in the SEC at #16.
18. Tennessee Titans: TE OJ Howard, Alabama
At #18, the Titans can afford to pick for value rather than need. Delanie Walker is one of the best tight ends in the NFL, but he's also 32. Howard is similarly proficient in both blocking and receiving, and he'd get the opportunity to learn from one of the best in the game in Nashville. Plus, Howard would make the Titans' two-tight-end sets all the more potent and aid head coach Mike Mularkey's smashmouth ground game.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OT Cam Robinson, Alabama
The Buccaneers are another up-and-coming young contender without too many obvious holes. Thankfully for the Tampa Bay brain trust, they can fix one of those holes with Alabama's Cam Robinson. The NFC South has some fierce pass rushers, but the Bucs lacked the quality bookend tackles to neutralize them. Robinson is a decent value here and he can plug that hole fairly quickly.
20. Denver Broncos: OT Garrett Bolles, Utah
Bolles has often been called the nastiest tackle in the draft, and for good reason. The Broncos could use his energy and ability on their offensive line, which simply can't stand up to the the exceptional group of AFC West edge rushers. Wisconsin's Ryan Ramczyk is another solid option here, but I think John Elway prefers Bolles because of his competitive edge.
21. Detroit Lions: LB TJ Watt, Wisconsin
Watt, the little brother of JJ, is even more athletic than his older brother and could be a terror opposite Ziggy Ansah in Detroit's attacking defensive scheme. The Lions were tied for 30th in the league with only 26.0 sacks last year. Watt could bring an instant impact as a pass-rusher, and he'd upgrade a mediocre linebacking corps as well. It might be a bit of a reach, but his athleticism and upside are just too good to pass up.
22. Miami Dolphins: G Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
Lamp seems to be the consensus here for Miami. With most of the great pass-rushers off the board, I think the Dolphins decide to upgrade a middling offensive line with the Western Kentucky product. He doesn't have the big-school name that a lot of other guys have, but he played his best in big spots--he shut down Alabama's vaunted defensive line when the two teams met, and excelled against upper-tier competition at the Senior Bowl as well.
23. New York Giants: TE David Njoku, Miami
Eli Manning is running out of time to make a serious playoff run. Njoku, one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the draft, could cap off a stocked offense and provide the catalyst for the Giants to get over their playoff hump. While his blocking is raw, it can be improved--and his receiving ability is outstanding enough to overlook the other flaws in his game.
24. Oakland Raiders: ILB Jarrad Davis, Florida
The Raiders defense was all-around atrocious last year. Davis will be a big add for a talent-starved inside linebacker depth chart, and he represents a great value at this point in the draft to boot. For Oakland, it was either a linebacker or a cornerback--Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie and Washington's Kevin King are tempting, but I think Davis is still the call.
25. Houston Texans: QB Deshone Kizer, Notre Dame
The Texans are strong at every position on the roster except QB. If this team wants to compete with the Patriots, they need to fix that gaping hole. Kizer, while erratic, is one of the best physical talents in the draft. With Bill O'Brien at the helm, the Notre Dame starter could develop into a perennial Pro Bowler--and even if he never pans out, it's worth the gamble. Better for Houston to do something than start Tom Savage all year.
26. Seattle Seahawks: OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
Ramczyk is one of the most pro-ready tackles in this draft. The Seahawks need all the help they can get along the offensive line, period. There are other holes on the roster, but with one so obvious this shouldn't be a hard decision.
27. Kansas City Chiefs: ILB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Aging Derrick Johnson just isn't getting the job done anymore at middle linebacker. Down the stretch last year, the Chiefs were steamrolled by their opponents' running attacks. At 234 pounds, Zach Cunningham is a little small, but he's also 6'4" and racked up over 130 tackles last year at Vanderbilt. If he can translate that kind of production to the NFL, KC would be ecstatic.
28. Dallas Cowboys: S Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
The 'Boys took an athletic safety out of UConn two years ago, and they might just go back to that well on Thursday night. Like Byron Jones, Obi Melifonwu is an otherworldly athlete, but he's also far bigger than Jones and can replace Barry Church as a hard-hitting free safety. His 6'4", 225 pound frame is reminiscent of the Seahawks' Kam Chancellor and his 4.40 speed will help mask a lot of holes on the Dallas D.
29. Green Bay Packers: CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
Ladarius Gunter was completely embarrassed by Julio Jones in the NFC Championship Game. Now, there aren't many corners in the world that could go toe-to-toe with the Falcons' weapon, but Awuzie would still represent a great upgrade over Gunter. Even though he's not the fastest cornerback in the draft, his 4.43 40 is perfectly respectable for either the boundary or the slot, and he has the requisite size (6', 190 lbs) to compete with all types of opposing wideouts.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers: DE/LB Charles Harris, Missouri
Pittsburgh is desperate for a bookend opposite rising star Bud Dupree. James Harrison and Jarvis Jones are both subpar and lack the requisite speed to get after the passer. Harris ran 4.82 at the Combine, but he's got outstanding quickness and first-step explosion--traits that helped him record 9 sacks and 12 tackles for loss last year with the Tigers. If he's still on the board here, expect the Steelers to pull the trigger without a second thought.
31. Atlanta Falcons: DE Taco Charlton, Michigan
Dwight Freeney outperformed expectations last year for the Falcons, but he won't be able to play forever. Charlton offers plus size (6'6") and athleticism--while he doesn't have the blazing speed that Atlanta covets, he makes up for it with savvy pass-rush moves and unnatural length. Based on a talent standpoint, he has to be the pick here for the Falcons if he's still available.
32. New Orleans Saints (from New England Patriots): QB Davis Webb, Cal
Drew Brees is in the twilight of his career, and Webb could be his heir. The Cal product has one of the best deep balls in the country, and in New Orleans he could learn behind one of the best in the game before being pushed into the spotlight. It's a great landing spot for a promising prospect--plus, by drafting him in the first round, the Saints get an extra year of team control over the QB.
Whether or not the Patriots trade their way back in, the first round is sure to be pretty interesting. Watch it tonight at 8:30 EST on NFL Network or ESPN, and let me know what you think of my picks on Twitter @AidanStenson.