Welcome to the NFL’s version of March Madness.
Filling out a mock draft is like picking a perfect bracket. Many times, the more you know only serves as further confusion. There are many paths on which Thursday night’s opening round can diverge. Right now, the only “sure thing” is that quarterbacks will be drafted with the first two picks.
So read this mock draft not as a blueprint for how the first round will unfold, but rather as a list of predictions that are sure to make this writer look foolish by Friday morning.
The process was quite simple. Evaluate where each individual team needs help, and search for the best value.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
In descending order, each pick was made on the merits of how that team could best benefit. No other team’s interest was considered. Here’s a logical progression for how Thursday’s first round could unfold.
1. Los Angeles Rams (via Tennessee)
QB Jared Goff, California: The last time a Cal quarterback had a chance to be taken No. 1 overall, another West Coast team (San Francisco) was sitting atop the draft. How’d that work out again? Pretty good for the Green Bay Packers, you'll remember. This will be different. Goff’s polished product is the perfect fit for a well-built roster looking to win now. Being an in-state prospect probably doesn’t hurt, even if the distance between Berkeley and Los Angeles is like driving from Green Bay to Indianapolis.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (via Cleveland)
QB Carson Wentz, North Dakota State: The Eagles didn’t trade up to No. 2 for nothing. Wentz has the best combination of size, speed and arm talent in this quarterback class. Even though he played at the FCS level, he has stood out when compared to big-school prospects in the pre-draft buildup. Question is how he’ll handle the transition from Fargo to being christened as Philadelphia’s football savior.
3. San Diego Chargers
OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss: Here’s where the draft can splinter onto several paths. Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey might be hard to pass up for a secondary that just lost Eric Weddle. An edge rusher such as Ohio State’s Joey Bosa or Oregon’s DeForest Buckner shouldn’t be ruled out. But Philip Rivers was sacked 40 times last season, and at age 34 he isn’t getting any younger. Neither is left tackle King Dunlap, who turns 31 in September. Tunsil can help keep Rivers’ jersey clean next season and be the franchise blindside blocker for many years to come.
4. Dallas Cowboys
DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State: All the talk about Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott being taken here is intriguing, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes intriguing. It just doesn’t make much sense. Sure, Elliott would thrive behind the best offensive line in football, but so should current running backs Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. That’s the benefit of having a great offensive line. What the Cowboys need dearly is an edge rusher after finishing 28th in sacks last season and starting 2016 with Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory serving four-game suspensions. Bosa is the best edge rusher in this class.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
LB Myles Jack, UCLA: Without knowing the medical report from his re-check in Indianapolis last week, it’s hard to predict whether Jack will fall – and by how much. This much is clear: He’s a perfect fit as an athletic, stack linebacker on a defense that should have a much better front-seven pass rush this fall. Jack’s ability to make plays sideline to sideline and cover running backs, tight ends and even receivers on third down fits the new mold for an NFL linebacker.
6. Baltimore Ravens
DB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: A year ago, the 2015 draft’s best overall player fell to No. 6 when the New York Jets drafted Leonard Williams. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome might not do cartwheels if Ramsey does the same, but he’ll want to. Many believe Ramsey is the best overall player in this class. A Ravens defense that ranked 23rd against the pass last season would receive a huge boost adding the ultra-athletic Ramsey to a secondary that includes Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and free-agent acquisition Eric Weddle.
7. San Francisco 49ers
OT Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame: The Niners are in an odd place. Normally, seventh overall would be good, but San Francisco dearly needs a quarterback. With Goff and Wentz off the board, it would be a wild reach to draft a quarterback in this slot. If you can’t draft a quarterback, might as well take your future quarterback’s blindside blocker. Veteran left tackle Joe Staley turns 32 in August and won’t play forever. Stanley can play at right tackle in 2016 and replace Staley when the time comes.
8. Cleveland Browns (via Philadelphia)
DE DeForest Buckner, Oregon: Another odd position in the order. The Browns need a long-term answer at quarterback (it isn’t Robert Griffen III) and a receiver, but both would be a reach at No. 8. It would not be a surprise for the Browns to trade back even further, into the teens. If Buckner is available, they also can stay put and take the best player available. Buckner would be a good fit next to 2015 first-round nose tackle Danny Shelton.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: Few picks make more sense in the first round, which probably means the Buccaneers will take anyone but Hargreaves when they’re on the clock. But, on paper, Hargreaves is dubbed this class’ best pure cover corner. The Bucs started rebuilding their cornerback depth chart when they signed Brent Grimes this offseason, but there’s still a ton of work to do.
10. New York Giants
OT Jack Conklin, Michigan State: Yep. Another offensive player in the first round. It would be the fifth straight year for the Giants, who, to be fair, have devoted their offseason to rebuilding a porous defense. It also would be the third time in the past four years the Giants spend their first-round pick on an offensive linemen. They took Ereck Flowers ninth overall in 2015, a slot where teams prefer to take offensive tackles. Only problem is Flowers struggled at tackle last season and is probably better suited for guard. Drafting Conklin would allow the Giants to kick Flowers inside to guard, and also give them a long-term upgrade at left tackle.
11. Chicago Bears
OLB Leonard Floyd, Georgia: No team rebuilt one position more through free agency than the Bears at inside linebacker. GM Ryan Pace signed Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman last month, locking up the two best inside linebackers on the market. Now, he focuses on bolstering the pass rush off the edge. Floyd is a great athlete with ridiculous range, possessing the best physical tools in this edge-rushing class. He needs to further develop, but the skill set is clear. In a division with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Teddy Bridgewater, drafting a pass rusher always is a wise choice.
12. New Orleans Saints
DT Sheldon Rankins, Louisville: The Saints’ first-round pick should be pretty simple. They need the best defensive player available. New Orleans allowed the most points and second-most yards of any team in the league last season, and a big reason was their lack of a pass rush. Rankins, the best one-gap defensive tackle in this class, would be a perfect fit lining up next to the run-stuffing, pass-rush averse John Jenkins.
13. Miami Dolphins
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: If this happens, there won’t be a happier team Friday morning than the Dolphins – and it’s not exclusively for the south Florida weather. Elliott could be drafted as high as No. 4 to the Cowboys, but a top-10 designation is high for any running back. Here, the value makes sense. Elliott is one of the best running back prospects in recent years, a complete player who would offset the void left in Miami’s backfield after Lamar Miller signed with the Texans last month.
14. Oakland Raiders
CB William Jackson III, Houston: This is a spot where Alabama’s Reggie Ragland certainly could be drafted. The Raiders have boosted their pass rush this offseason, adding Bruce Irvin in free agency. One of their few remaining holes in the front seven is middle linebacker, where 2015 fifth-round pick Ben Heeney is expected to be the starter. Heeney is better in coverage than defending the run, so he could protect Ragland’s potential lack of mobility in space. But the better positional value would be cornerback, where D.J. Hayden has not developed into the player GM Reggie McKenzie thought he was drafting in the first round two years ago. The guess here is McKenzie calls a mulligan and drafts Jackson.
15. Tennessee Titans (via Los Angeles)
OT Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The Titans would have their top pick of receiver prospects if the board fell this way, and Marcus Mariota needs playmakers around him. But the Titans allowed 54 sacks last season, more than any other team. You can’t allow a young quarterback to get crushed every week, so the pick here is the best remaining offensive tackle on the board. Taylor Decker should start right away at right tackle, giving the Titans bookend pass blockers with Taylor Lewan on the left side.
16. Detroit Lions
DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson: Cornerback could be in play here, but the Lions need a bookend pass rusher to line up opposite Ziggy Ansah, and Lawson is better than any corner they could draft at this spot. The Lions tied for ninth in the league with 42 sacks last season, primarily because Ansah was such a one-man terror. Imagine how much more terrorizing he’ll be if Detroit has another defensive end demanding special attention from opposing offensive lines.
17. Atlanta Falcons
LB Darron Lee, Ohio State: Of all the first-round picks, this one might be the easiest to make. The Falcons bled to death against opposing running backs in the passing game last season. If Lee is available, his 4.4-second speed and safety coverage skills would be a perfect fit in coach Dan Quinn’s defense. Lee is undersized, but his sideline-to-sideline range could do for Quinn’s system what Bobby Wagner did in Seattle.
18. Indianapolis Colts
C Ryan Kelly, Alabama: An underrated aspect of Peyton Manning’s extended excellence in Indianapolis was the benefit of playing with the same center most of his career. Before coming to Green Bay, Jeff Saturday was the brains of the Colts’ offensive line in the Manning years. Andrew Luck needs help all across the offensive line, but no place more than center. Ryan Kelly is one of the best center prospects to enter the league in years and would have a chance to do for Luck what Saturday did for Manning.
19. Buffalo Bills
DE A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: The projections that Robinson might fall outside the top 20 make zero sense. He’s an athletic defensive end with great length and even greater upside, perfectly suited to play the five-technique position in a 3-4 defense. He’s a solid run defender and can be an interior rusher in subpackage. Oh, he also just turned 21 last month. The Packers would love for Robinson to slip to No. 27. Instead, Rex Ryan will love him in Buffalo.
20. New York Jets
QB Paxton Lynch, Memphis: An edge rusher like Kevin Dodd could be in play here, but let’s be real. It’s the Jets. They haven’t had a great quarterback since Joe Namath. In this league, quarterback is the only thing that matters. Lynch is a reach at No. 20, though not an egregious one. Most important, he’s a big-armed prospect who could develop into a long-term starter if given time to grow in the offense. He probably won’t be given that time to grow. It is the Jets, after all. Still, teams should exhaust every possible avenue to acquire a potential starting quarterback. Especially if you’re the Jets.
DT Jarran Reed, Alabama: Another pick that just makes sense. Washington had one of the worst run defenses last season. It ranked 26th with 122.6 rushing yards allowed per game, and tied for 30th with 4.8 yards per run allowed. And they just lost Terrance Knighton, who offered a tremendous interior presence against the run and absolutely no pass rush. Reed is the same kind of player. The best interior run defender in his class, Reed might never pressure the quarterback much. What Washington needs is for him to upgrade the middle of its velvety soft defense. Reed can do that better than anybody.
22. Houston Texans
WR Will Fuller, Notre Dame: Fuller is not the best receiver in this class, but the Texans don’t need that. They already have DeAndre Hopkins, a true No. 1 target who makes up for a lack of speed with excellent hands and route-running. The Texans need a No. 2 target to line up on the opposite side of the field, and they have a need for speed. Fuller, with a blazing 4.32-second, 40-yard dash at the combine, is the best deep threat in this draft. He’ll be a perfect fit in Houston.
23. Minnesota Vikings
WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: If Treadwell slips all the way to No. 23, it’s hard to predict who would be happier: Bridgewater or GM Rick Spielman. Indeed, they would be celebrating in the Vikings’ war room. After taking defensive players in the first round each of the past three years, it’s time for the Vikings to get their young quarterback a legitimate No. 1 receiving option. Treadwell doesn’t ran fast, but most analysts consider him to be the top receiver in this class. His size, strength, hands, route-running and, yes, blocking will be welcomed additions in Minnesota.
24. Cincinnati Bengals
WR Josh Doctson, TCU: It’s a wide receiver run! One of the safest bets in Thursday’s first round is that receivers will be taken with three straight picks in the early 20s. The Bengals, like the two teams before them, need to give their quarterback more weapons. Doctson could develop into another No. 1 receiver, a dangerous combination with All-Pro A.J. Green.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Eli Apple, Ohio State: The Steelers are going to take a defensive back with their 25th overall pick after finishing 30th against the pass last season. Only question is whether it will be a cornerback or safety. A player like West Virginia free safety Karl Joseph could be in play here, but the better positional value would be cornerback. Apple, who won’t turn 21 until August, could develop into the Steelers’ future No. 1 corner.
26. Seattle Seahawks
OT Jordan Spriggs, Indiana: Seattle could be an ideal candidate to trade out of the first round, if it can find a trade partner. The Seahawks need offensive line help in the worst way, starting with left tackle. There isn’t an ideal left tackle prospect to draft in this slot. If they stay put, Indiana’s Jordan Spriggs and Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi are most likely. Spriggs is a freak athlete for his size, running a 4.94-second 40 at the combine. Neither Spriggs nor Ifedi are ready to play right away. The better athlete breaks this tie.
27. Green Bay Packers
ILB Reggie Ragland, Alabama: He has limitations in coverage, but they don’t overshadow what he'd bring to the Packers' defense. Ted Thompson still might need to draft someone who can play dime linebacker in clear passing situations, but he has eight more picks after the first round. The Packers can draft someone to fill a niche later. Right here, they take a player who immediately will make them a better run defense, upgrading a unit that finished 21st against the rush and was one of seven to allow 4.5 yards per carry last season. Ragland will be able to stay on the field in nickel, the Packers’ preferred package. On early downs, Ragland is a potentially dynamic player, a linebacker the Packers have long needed.
28. Kansas City Chiefs
S Karl Joseph, West Virginia: The Chiefs lost Sean Smith to the Raiders in free agency, so cornerback is clearly an option. Here, the value at safety is much higher. Joseph would be a perfect fit next to Eric Berry, a ball hawk who had five interceptions through four games before tearing his ACL last season.
29. Arizona Cardinals
OLB Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky: Perhaps the most polished edge rusher in this class, Spence could be in consideration when the Packers are on the clock two picks before this. The best guess is Spence’s off-field concerns are enough for Thompson to pass, allowing the Cardinals to draft him two spots later. Spence probably would be drafted higher if not for two failed drug tests for Ecstasy that got the former Ohio State pass rusher banned from the Big Ten. The value is too great at the end of Round 1, especially for a Cardinals team that needs to add talent to a young group of edge rushers.
30. Carolina Panthers
OT Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M: Anyone wondering about the biggest hole on the Panthers’ roster need only remember Super Bowl 50. The Denver Broncos exposed Carolina’s lack of solutions at tackle. It appears the Panthers are willing to stick with Michael Oher and Mike Remmers as starting tackles, which probably is for the best. Ifedi is a value pick here. He might need a year to develop, but he has the potential to be a future franchise left tackle protecting Cam Newton’s blindside.
31. Denver Broncos
QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: It’s so rare for the defending Super Bowl champion to be desperate for a quarterback, this is almost uncharted waters. After losing Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler in a shocking free-agency defection, the Broncos' opening-week starter is slotted to be … Mark Sanchez. That will not do. The air might be thinner in the Rocky Mountains, but it won’t help Sanchez throw better. When a team needs a quarterback, it should go all in with resources until one is locked up. That’s what the Broncos do at the end of the first round.