Many of the NFL offseason’s prevailing assumptions are about to be put to the test in free agency.
As teams wait for the tampering window to begin next Monday and the deals to be announced in earnest next Wednesday, many coaches and general managers have remained cagey about the specifics of their plans. And with the collective bargaining agreement still up in the air and franchise tags yet to be doled out, a cloud of uncertainty has left much of the offseason shrouded in mystery. But much of that might change when some teams address imminent needs with sizable free agent deals, often creating big holes for the competition in the process.
Though the landscape is sure to shift in the coming weeks, here’s our 2020 pre-free agency NFL mock draft for the first round:
1. Bengals — Joe Burrow, QB, LSU: After Burrow stiff-armed any notion of controversy at the combine by saying he would play for the Bengals if picked at No. 1, there shouldn’t be any lingering drama between now and when Cincinnati makes the selection official in late April. Sure, the Heisman Trophy winner hasn’t officially traded in his “Burreaux” jersey for a “Burr-OH” one, but neither side has given any reason to believe this promising pairing won’t materialize as expected. Larger concerns might await in free agency, as retaining A.J. Green and fortifying the offensive line would ease Burrow’s transition to a Zac Taylor offense that never got off the ground in Year 1.
2. Redskins — Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: February and March are the times to mull far-fetched scenarios, such as whether Washington might actually grab Tua Tagovailoa and cut bait on Dwayne Haskins after only one year. By April, it likely will be harder to envision new coach Ron Rivera passing up on Young, who’s widely seen as the draft’s top defensive player. For now, it seems reasonable to take Rivera at his word that the team is taking stock of its options — but don’t get carried away with the notion of a full reset.
3. Lions — Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State: The idea of working alongside three-time Pro Bowl selection Darius Slay appealed greatly to Okudah, who said at the combine the pairing could be “magical.” It’s still unclear, however, whether the Lions share that same vision after acknowledging trade discussions regarding their veteran cornerback. Regardless of whether they move Slay, Okudah is the obvious choice, barring a colossal offer from a team desperate to move up to the slot for a quarterback.
4. Giants — Isaiah Simmons, LB/S, Clemson: What better way to address a defense that needs almost everything than with a player who does almost everything? An off-ball linebacker isn’t the ideal building block for a unit in need of renovation, but Simmons has proven he shouldn’t be pigeonholed with such a label. This pick, however, might hinge on whether general manager Dave Gettleman can field an alluring deal to move back and recoup more selections.
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5. Dolphins — Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: Perhaps no prospect will generate more buzz and speculation over the next six weeks than Tagovailoa. Even with encouraging reports on his medical outlook continuing to roll in ahead of his pro day next month, much will depend on how teams at the top of the draft assess his durability. Given Miami’s positioning and overwhelming need, the Dolphins still seem like the most sensible landing spot.
6. Chargers — Mekhi Becton, OT, Louisville: Passing on a quarterback would earn GM Tom Telesco plenty of second-guessing, but the Chargers could find another veteran passer in free agency to compete with Tyrod Taylor. If so, securing a blindside protector to take over for Russell Okung might become a higher concern, which might lead them to the massive (6-7, 364 pounds) Becton.
7. Panthers — Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn: Though it’s hard to rule out Carolina in the quarterback derby given the uncertainty surrounding Cam Newton, Matt Rhule looks prepared for an extended rebuild. That might portend building up front rather than getting trigger-happy with a signal-caller. Brown would fortify a defensive line bound for upheaval.
8. Cardinals — CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma: Despite using second-round picks the last two years to land Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella, Arizona doesn’t have much clarity at receiver for its eventual post-Larry Fitzgerald future. Lamb’s reunion with former Sooners signal-caller Kyler Murray might make for the perfect pairing for Kliff Kingsbury, who undoubtedly could find myriad ways to utilize a dynamic target who racks up yards after the catch.
9. Jaguars — Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina: Even after casting off A.J. Bouye to the Broncos, Jacksonville shouldn’t let its new deficiency at cornerback override the opportunity to land a talent like Kinlaw. With a penchant for creating havoc in the backfield before plays can fully develop, Kinlaw can be one of the foundational pieces this defense needs after shedding several of its previous stars.
10. Browns — Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Alabama: While new coach Kevin Stefanski looks poised to build up a run-heavy, zone-blocking scheme in Cleveland, GM Andrew Berry made it clear one of his first orders on the job would be to enhance protection for Baker Mayfield. Wills, who capably handled pass rushers and plowed huge holes in a dominant 2019 season, stands out as someone suited for both tasks.
11. Jets — Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa: Getting the most out of Sam Darnold and the remainder of the quarterback’s rookie contract is imperative for GM Joe Douglas, so his highest priority in his first true offseason must be enhancing the offensive line. Even if the Jets indulge in a high-priced free agent or two, they shouldn’t be deterred from grabbing one of the top four offensive tackles in the draft, particularly if the astonishingly athletic Wirfs is on the board.
12. Raiders — Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama: In just one draft, GM Mike Mayock has shown a clear affinity for accomplished, pro-ready players from winning programs. The trend could hold with Jeudy, whose three years at Alabama served as a clinic for other receivers on how to create separation from defenders.
13. Colts — Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon: Amid speculation from his own ex-teammates and outside observers, quarterback Philip Rivers has frequently been linked with the Colts this offseason. Signing the 38-year-old, however, wouldn’t prohibit Indianapolis from using its first-round pick on a passer, particularly if Herbert were to be available. GM Chris Ballard has repeatedly taken the long view on team building, and picking up a rocket-armed signal-caller — albeit one with bouts of inconsistency and questionable decision-making — would settle one of the biggest questions for Indianapolis if Rivers comes aboard.
14. Buccaneers — Jordan Love, QB, Utah State: Coach Bruce Arians and GM Jason Licht’s tepid statements about Jameis Winston are potential harbingers for change behind center in Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers have made it known they at least want to consider other options. Under Arians, Love likely would be encouraged to hone his daring downfield approach rather than suppress it.
15. Broncos — Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama: If Ruggs is still available at this point, John Elway might race to get his draft card in with a swiftness befitting the receiver who ran a combine-best 4.27-second 40-yard dash. Ruggs is more sure-handed and crafty than many receivers with elite speed, and his addition could have wide-ranging effects for second-year quarterback Drew Lock and the rest of the offense.
16. Falcons — K’Lavon Chaisson, DE/OLB, LSU: The premier pass rusher Atlanta needs likely won’t be attainable in free agency, so the easiest route for GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn to ramp up the pressure could be grabbing Chaisson, a fluid threat off the edge who could take on a larger role as he becomes stronger and diversifies his approach.
17. Cowboys — C.J. Henderson, CB, LSU: With Byron Jones seemingly having one foot out the door ahead of free agency, Dallas likely will be in the market for a new ace cover man. Henderson’s rare physical makeup gives him the tools needed to thrive in man coverage against even the most imposing receivers.
18. Dolphins (from Steelers) — Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia: Though not as long or nimble as some of the other top offensive tackles, Thomas is perhaps the steadiest of the bunch and could serve as an anchor for a Miami line that in 2019 yielded 58 sacks, tied for the league worst.
19. Raiders (from Bears) — Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma: A linebacker makeover was overdue long before Tahir Whitehead’s release on Monday, and Murray boasts playmaking range that could revitalize the defense if he grows more comfortable in coverage.
20. Jaguars (from Rams) — Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU: Few defensive prospects are better suited for a plug-and-play role as a rookie than Fulton, a refined cornerback who is difficult for opposing receivers to shake.
21. Eagles — Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU: After coming up empty on an assortment of options at wide receiver, Philadelphia above all else needs someone reliable. A trustworthy target who showed off impressive athleticism at the combine, Jefferson fits the bill as a receiver who can be relied on to win contested catches and keep the passing game rolling.
22. Bills — Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado: He could be at risk of a slide in the aftermath of core muscle surgery and several other top receivers building cases for the first round, but Shenault sets himself apart from his many of his peers with his ability to create problems for defensive backs in the open field.
23. Patriots — Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama: As a potential replacement for Devin McCourty or merely an additional piece in the secondary, McKinney offers the reliability and versatility that Belichick demands from his safeties.
24. Saints — Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State: Now that New Orleans’ quarterback outlook has cleared up with Drew Brees’ impending return and Taysom Hill set for a first-round tender, the Saints can focus on bolstering their receiving corps with Aiyuk, who stretches defenses both horizontally and vertically with his speed.
25. Vikings — Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama: Double the Diggs, double fun. As one of the draft’s most physical and aggressive cornerbacks, Stefon’s brother has the talent to make his own name on a Vikings team that likely will need reinforcements in the secondary.
26. Dolphins (from Texans) — A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa: A suboptimal testing profile might not bother GM Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores, who should fall for Epenesa’s relentless approach to rushing the passer.
27. Seahawks — Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State: Though far from a finished product, Gross-Matos is a tantalizing project for a Seahawks defense desperate for some speed off the edge.
28. Ravens — Patrick Queen, LB, LSU: Nightmares of Baltimore’s defensive collapse in the playoffs will be easier to quell if the Ravens grab Queen, whose knack for quickly diagnosing plays and rallying to the ball would come in handy.
29. Titans — Josh Jones, OT, Houston: Though the largest free agency questions will center on Tom Brady, Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, Tennessee also might need to replace right tackle Jack Conklin, and the quick-footed Jones might be a suitable successor.
30. Packers — Austin Jackson, OT, USC: Bryan Bulaga and Green Bay might be headed in different directions in free agency, and nabbing Jackson would prevent a further shake-up along the offensive line.
31. 49ers — Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor: With Emmanuel Sanders hitting free agency and Marquise Goodwin on the trade block, per an NFL.com report, the rangy Mims (6-3, 207 pounds) would be an enticing option to put alongside Deebo Samuel.
32. Chiefs — A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson: No matter whether Kansas City brings back Bashaud Breeland and/or Kendall Fuller, a lengthy and athletic cornerback like Terrell would serve the defending champions well both in the short and long term.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.