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2018 NFL mock draft: How QB changes will alter the draft

Where veteran signal callers go will greatly impact where rookies end up.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

This week’s mock draft is all about making assumptions about what will happen with veteran quarterbacks. What happens to players like Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith, and Case Keenum will greatly alter what happens in the 2018 NFL draft. Here’s a guess at what that will be:

Sam Bradford to the Jets

The Jets are projected to have the fourth-most salary cap space this offseason, according to Over The Cap. Let’s assume they spend a good chunk of that on a quarterback like Bradford. His health history makes him a risk, but he could stop a team from taking a quarterback in the first round. The Jets should also be in play for Cousins if he’s available.

Kirk Cousins stays in Washington

Since we made a quarterback assumption at the Jets’ pick, let’s make another with Washington and say somehow Kirk Cousins is back. Franchise tagging him at $34.5 million next season seems absurd, but Washington has enough money available to at least hand it out for the third time to Cousins.

Alex Smith to the Browns

Whether the Browns move a draft pick to make sure they can acquire Alex Smith or he’s made available on the open market, Cleveland should make this move on the Chiefs quarterback. It has the money and draft capital to use on Smith. But entering his age-34 season, Smith isn’t a long-term solution.

Minnesota goes with Teddy Bridgewater

Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, and Keenum are all unrestricted free agents for the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. If Minnesota keeps only one, Bridgewater is the sentimental favorite after the Vikings traded up for him in the draft in Mike Zimmer’s first season. Obviously it’s a gamble considering he’s played only one game in two years.

Case Keenum to the Cardinals

If Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur ends up in Arizona — and that isn’t guaranteed — Keenum is expected to come with him in free agency.

Just to cover these other ones: Drew Brees is back in New Orleans, the 49ers give Jimmy Garoppolo a huge contract, and the NFL rules that AJ McCarron is a restricted free agent and he stays in Cincinnati. Quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown are simply bridges and don’t alter a team’s plans.

The other thing to keep in mind for this mock draft, and going forward, is that defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant decided to return to Clemson for another season. At the least, Ferrell is a first-round pick.

With those moves in mind, here’s this week’s mock draft:

1. Cleveland Browns: Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California

The Darnold vs. Josh Rosen debate for Cleveland could be decided by bringing in a quarterback like Smith. The belief is that Darnold has greater potential than Rosen, but his technique and decision-making need work. Smith could start while Darnold refines his game. Smith should be used to this scenario after Kansas City used a first-round pick on Patrick Mahomes last year.

2. New York Giants: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Even if you continue the quarterback assumptions and say Eli Manning will be back in New York, the Giants should get his replacement with the second-overall pick. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Rosen or Darnold.

3. Indianapolis Colts: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

This pick should still be a toss-up between Barkley and North Carolina State pass rusher Bradley Chubb. If it simply comes down to the best overall player, the edge goes to Barkley.

4. Cleveland Browns (via Houston Texans): Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

Whether you project Fitzpatrick to safety or cornerback, it doesn’t matter for the Browns. They need talent at both in a bad way.

5. Denver Broncos: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Although the Broncos have often gone after bigger quarterbacks like Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, or even Trevor Siemian, who is 6’3, they could fall for Mayfield. They specifically requested to coach Mayfield at next week’s Senior Bowl, so we’ll learn more about this fit soon.

6. New York Jets: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

If the Jets hand out a big quarterback contract this offseason, the focus in the first round could shift. This may seem early for Ward, but he had an All-American season and other than his size he doesn’t have many flaws:

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State

This would be an easy choice for the Buccaneers, and you could argue that they should attempt to trade up for Chubb. He’s one of the five best players in the draft this year and should contribute immediately as a pass rusher.

8. Chicago Bears: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

Although an outside pass rusher is a greater need for the Bears, you’re taking a risk with Arden Key of LSU. The Bears could go with Ridley here and follow it in the second round with someone like Lorenzo Carter of Georgia.

9. Oakland Raiders: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

In the past, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has shown that he doesn’t put a lot of value in linebackers. But with Jon Gruden in town, that may change. Gruden won a Super Bowl with Derrick Brooks and could see a similar player in the athletic Smith.

10. San Francisco 49ers: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame

If a top-five overall player drops this far, it has to be the pick, even if it’s an interior offensive lineman. Fortunately for San Francisco, Nelson would fill a big need on the offensive line.

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11. Miami Dolphins: Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma

Smith and Nelson in back-to-back picks in front of them would be awful news for the Dolphins. That could lead them to one of the offensive tackles expected to be taken in the first round. If the team moves on from Ja’Wuan James because of his contract, Brown could replace him on the right side. If not, the massive blocker could get a look on the inside.

12. Cincinnati Bengals: Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame

The Bengals need to fix their offensive line this offseason, and McGlinchey gets the edge over Connor Williams of Texas. McGlinchey can play on the left or right side of the offensive line.

13. Washington: Derwin James, S, Florida State

If Washington does manage to bring back Cousins, adding talent on defense has to be a priority. James can do a number of different things on the defense. He can play inside linebacker, cover tight ends and running backs on pass plays, and blitz on occasion.

14. Green Bay Packers: Tremaine Edmunds, OLB, Virginia Tech

The Packers clearly need a pass rusher this offseason, and there are some intriguing options in the draft. Players like Arden Key of LSU or Harold Landry of Boston College may seem like more natural fits, but Edmunds has fewer questions off the field.

15. Arizona Cardinals: Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU

If the Cardinals do secure a quarterback before the draft, they could look to help him out on offense. That could come on the offensive line or at wide receiver. Sutton isn’t the cleanest route runner, but he has good hands and size and a penchant for making spectacular receptions.

16. Baltimore Ravens: Arden Key, OLB/DE, LSU

If two wide receivers are gone by the time Baltimore’s pick is up, the Ravens could look for Terrell Suggs’ heir apparent. That could be Key, who has incredible athleticism and length.

17. Los Angeles Chargers: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

Philip Rivers’ career is winding down, so Los Angeles could be looking for its quarterback of the future in this draft. Jackson is loaded with tools but may need some time to adapt to the NFL. Going to Los Angeles would be a perfect fit.

18. Seattle Seahawks: Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio

There are lots of questions facing Seattle’s defense this offseason. Defensive end Cliff Avril and linebacker Kam Chancellor have serious injuries, end Michael Bennett thinks he might be gone, and Richard Sherman will be coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon. With questions about both pass rushers, Seattle could strongly consider Davenport. Teams will love his length and athleticism off the line of scrimmage.

19. Dallas Cowboys: Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson

Wilkins hadn’t made his draft decision by the time this mock draft was submitted, but he has first-round talent because he can consistently create pressure from the interior. For the Cowboys, he would help the pass rush and give them a player who can get into the backfield against the run.

Update: Wilkins announced Monday that he will return for his senior season at Clemson.

20. Detroit Lions: Vita Vea, DT, Washington

Haloti Ngata wants to keep playing, so why not eventually replace him with his doppelgänger in Vea? Like Ngata, Vea is playing all over the line, from nose tackle to an end in odd fronts.

21. Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

All of the quarterback changes that happen this offseason could lead to a draft-day fall for Allen. If he’s around when the Bills come up, they should gamble a pick on his immense upside.

22. Buffalo Bills (via Kansas City Chiefs): Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama

Even if Kyle Williams is back for another season with the Bills, the run defense needs improving. Playing the run is Payne’s specialty. At Alabama he often played over the nose. He helped neutralize Georgia running back Nick Chubb in the national championship game.

23. Los Angeles Rams: Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa

With Ward long gone, the Rams would be fine if they fell back on Jackson. If Trumaine Johnson leaves in free agency, a player like Johnson would be a natural replacement.

24. Carolina Panthers: Connor Williams, OT, Texas

After Carolina was eliminated from the playoffs, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan referred to Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil as “Speedbump McGee.” If the Panthers agree, they could look for a new tackle early. Williams’ draft stock is varied, so it won’t be a surprise if he’s around in the middle of the first round.

25. Tennessee Titans: Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College

Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are free agents after next season and are coming off below-average performances in Tennessee’s playoff loss to the Patriots. Adding another pass rusher in Landry would give the Titans more of a rotation and a young player for the future.

26. Atlanta Falcons: Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan

I continue seeing this as a perfect fit. Putting Hurst up front with Grady Jarrett would give Atlanta a pair of defensive linemen who are lightning quick off the snap.

27. New Orleans Saints: Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma

After a shocking defeat on Sunday, the Saints have needs in a few spots in the front seven. But this is a franchise that is still built on making sure Drew Brees has players around him. The Saints have needed a tight end since Jimmy Graham was traded. Andrews isn’t on that level athletically, but he is the draft’s top tight end and will give New Orleans a player who can catch the ball and block.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

After a surprising home loss in the playoffs, it’s evident that the Steelers need to add talent on defense. Harrison is capable of playing in a lone high safety role and coming up into the box.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State

An athletic tight end, Goedert looks comfortable playing inline and split out wide. He would add another dimension to Jacksonville’s offense and a nice safety blanket for Blake Bortles.

30. Philadelphia Eagles: Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State

Philadelphia has some good pieces on the offensive line, including right tackle Lane Johnson and guards Stefen Wisniewski and Brandon Brooks. Left tackle can be a problem, however. Rankin has a chance to rise up draft boards next week at the Senior Bowl and earn himself a first-round grade.

31. New England Patriots: Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn

Malcolm Butler could leave New England after the season, leaving the Patriots with a big hole at cornerback. Fortunately they could finally have luck on their side for once because cornerback is one of the deepest positions in the draft this year. Davis isn’t far behind Ward and Jackson in the rankings.

32. Minnesota Vikings: Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville

Terence Newman’s career has to end at some point, and with the Vikings in contention for a Super Bowl he could choose to go out on a high note. If he does, the Vikings could find a cornerback in the end of the first round to go opposite All-Pro Xavier Rhodes. Alexander battled injuries this season, but in 2016 he made a name for himself with four interceptions and 14 pass breakups.

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