It's going to happen. There's at least one every year. Some team -- whether they have a highly-respected scouting team or are that club that always seems to make some weird decision -- is going to reach for a player that no one expected and take them well before they were projected to go off the board. It's not a matter of if, but when.
I don't know which team(s) will hold that ignominious honor this year, but I've got some ideas.
A short history of recent draft reaches
Of course, a reach is only a reach because the media decides it is. While some pre-draft rankings and projections are based on information that teams are feeding different outlets, we don't really know what's happening behind the scenes. Even if we view a pick as an egregious reach -- "that guy still would've been there in the third round!" -- it's entirely possible in most cases that the consensus perception of a player's value did not line up with how teams actually viewed him.
When teams make a reach, by definition, it implies that they could've waited and gotten that player later. How do we know? Did all 32 GMs tell us? Are you certain that some team a few picks down the line wasn't ready to pull the trigger? It's impossible to know these things, so I don't really buy too much into the whole reach narrative, but I definitely love when one of these players come off the board. People lose their shit.
In 2009, it was Al Davis' selection of the speedster Darius Heyward-Bey at No. 7 overall that brought an avalanche of criticism upon the Raiders.
In 2010, the big shocker came 10 picks in, when the Jags selected Cal defensive tackle Tyson Alualu at a spot about 30-50 (or more) selections before most, if not all mock drafts had him slated. I'm not sure anyone even had Alualu projected as a first-round pick. Though the sturdy interior lineman has actually had a pretty solid career with Jacksonville (77 starts -- a lot more than you can say about many first-rounders), Alualu is still remembered as a gold standard of the most surprising reaches in recent memory.
In 2011, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder crashed the top 12, pushing players like J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn down into the eager hands of a few lucky teams. In 2012, the Seahawks' selection of Bruce Irvin at No. 15 created a hubbub of epic proportions, and the Niners' decision to select A.J. Jenkins, who had been mocked in the mid rounds, was curious (and ultimately a complete failure).
The 2013 draft featured a trade-up by Miami to select Ducks pass rusher Dion Jordan, but I think the bigger reach based on mock drafts at the time was probably D.J. Hayden, who went to the Raiders at No. 12 overall. E.J. Manuel surprisingly came off the board at No. 16 overall, and the Cowboys' selection of center Travis Frederick at No. 31 overall was considered a slight reach at the time.
The 2014 draft was relatively bereft of shocking reaches unless you consider Blake Bortles (No. 3) one. You could probably make arguments for Justin Gilbert (No. 8), Ja'Wuan James (No. 19), Dee Ford (No. 23) or Marcus Smith (No. 26) as the most egregious reaches based on mock draft projections at the time. Last year, it was Ereck Flowers (No. 9), Melvin Gordon (No. 15), Nelson Agholor (No. 20), D.J. Humphries (No. 24) and Phillip Dorsett (No. 29) crashing into the first round out of sync with many projections at the time.
So, who's it going to be this year?
Now the fun part.
I'm going to assign one potential reach player to each slot in the first round. Please note, this is not a mock draft, as I don't think that every single one of the 31 picks in the first round is going to be a reach. What I'm doing is making a somewhat reasonable -- or at least in some way defensible -- selection for each team, based on where they're drafting. In other words, you don't necessarily know who was on the board for each of these selections, only that each of these picks is probably considered a reach based on where these players are being mocked and projected currently.
This year's draft has already gotten off to a weird start with two teams trading enormous capital to move into the top two picks. We still don't really know which quarterbacks each team will pick, but the moves were certainly curious considering this class of quarterbacks was not as highly regarded as many in the recent past. Regardless, those two picks seem set in stone one way or another.
Now that we have those two out of the way, let's make some guesses on surprise, completely hypothetical picks down the line.
3. Chargers: Jack Conklin, OT Michigan State
Laremy Tunsil is the consensus top tackle for this draft but maybe the Chargers are worried about his injury history. Maybe they're worried about his power. Maybe they're just in love with the toughness that Conklin brings to the table. Whatever the case may be, San Diego could see things differently than most NFL Draft analysts on this one and go with a guy that they can install at the right tackle spot on day one. With King Dunlap at left tackle, Orlando Franklin at left guard, D.J. Fluker at right guard, and Conklin at right tackle, San Diego can improve significantly on offense next year.
4. Cowboys: Shaq Lawson, DE Clemson
The Greg Hardy experiment failed. Randy Gregory is suspended. DeMarcus Lawrence is suspended. Choosing Shaq Lawson might not be a huge reach here, but considering that it's likely Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Joey Bosa, and a few others are still on the board at this point, it's sure to be a surprise. Fact is, it's never too early to take the best pass rusher in the draft.
5. Jaguars: Leonard Floyd, OLB Georgia
Maybe the Jags don't trust Myles Jack's medicals. Maybe Jalen Ramsey is gone. Maybe they don't like what they see from Joey Bosa. Getting a guy like Floyd, who can start at the SAM spot on base downs and then move into the line to rush the passer on third downs, would be pretty valuable to them. Think of Irvin in Seattle's defense the last few years.
6. Ravens: Reggie Ragland, ILB Alabama
Ozzie Newsome knows the value of game-changing inside linebackers in his scheme, and Reggie Ragland is a throwback to the style of old school linebackers. Two-down defenders might not be the best value in the first round, but with Daryl Smith gone, Baltimore could see a great fit in Ragland. A tone-setter on defense -- it's what the doctor ordered.
7. 49ers: Noah Spence, Western Kentucky
This is probably not too big of a reach in terms of talent level, but the red flags have most mocks projecting him to the late first or somewhere in the second. The Niners could look past the character concerns and see a guy that can flat out rush the passer. Chip Kelly is not afraid to make bold moves, as you well know.
8. Browns: Paxton Lynch, QB Memphis
It would've been absurd to suggest that Lynch could go as high as No. 8 overall a few weeks ago, but with the craziness at the top of the draft, we may see some of the second-tier quarterbacks pushed higher into the first day. The Browns recently signed Robert Griffin III as a bridge, but still need a quarterback to develop for the future. Lynch is super athletic and under Hue Jackson's tutelage, he could develop into a solid pro.
9. Buccaneers: William Jackson III, CB Houston
The Bucs would surprise a lot of people by taking by taking Jackson before some heavy-hitters like Vernon Hargreaves and Eli Apple. If Tampa Bay loves his playmaking ability and ball skills enough, they could take that chance on him over some more highly-rated peers.
10. Giants: Karl Joseph, FS West Virginia
An ACL injury has kept Joseph under the radar in the run up to the draft, but the Giants could fall in love with his tape so much that they're comfortable taking him without seeing him work out. While some don't even think he'll show up in the first round, New York could take Joseph at No. 10 because they love the prospect of pairing him with Landon Collins in their defensive secondary, which also added Janoris Jenkins this offseason.
11. Bears: Chris Jones, DT Mississippi State
If guys like Sheldon Rankins, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed are still on the board, Chicago would shock the draft world with the selection of Chris Jones at No. 11. He may be considered a reach here, but when Jones wants to, he can be one of the most dominant defensive linemen in this class. Vic Fangio and company are looking to build a bully on defense, and it starts up front. Jones has the versatility to play on three downs and in multiple spots on the line.
12. Saints: Artie Burns, CB Miami
What happens if there's an early run on cornerbacks this year? I could see the Saints sitting there at No. 12 and feeling the need to get a guy that they don't think will still be there at their spot in the second round. Assume they're not intimidated by cornerback reaches like D.J. Hayden and Justin Gilbert in recent drafts and go with Burns, who is a prototypical size and speed with some ball skills -- all things that you really can't teach.
13. Dolphins: Derrick Henry, RB Alabama
Some would say that this is not a reach. Henry is one of the most productive and accomplished college running backs in history, but many still adhere to the philosophy that you can get better value at the position later on. The Dolphins might not care, and take Henry here with the thought that they'll continue to build a run game and find better balance on offense for Ryan Tannehill.
14. Raiders: Jaylon Smith, LB Notre Dame
In taking Hayden a few years ago, the Raiders demonstrated that the risk for future injury issues doesn't necessarily phase them too much. They'd continue along those same lines with Smith, whose stock at this point appears to lie somewhere in the third or fourth rounds because of fears around his injured knee. If Smith can manage to rehab his knee while taking his rookie year off, whichever team drafts him will have grabbed one of the most talented prospects in the entire draft, a true defense field-tipper that could take an emerging defense and put them over the top.
High Hopes: 3 teams who can draft themselves into the playoffs
15. Titans: La'Raven Clark, OT Texas Tech
We see it every year -- a couple of teams really stray from the consensus on how they view certain prospects. La'Raven Clark's raw tools might be too much for Tennessee to pass. While many have him somewhere in the second round, the Titans may see a guy with similar upside to Tunsil and feel comfortable starting him out on the right side as a rookie. He's 6'5, 316 pounds, has meat-hooks for hands and vines for arms and possesses the feet to develop as a starting left tackle down the line.
16. Lions: Will Fuller, WR Notre Dame
There are whispers that the Notre Dame speedster will be the first receiver off the board this year, and with Calvin Johnson retiring this offseason, the Lions are looking for a playmaker on offense. Fuller can stretch the field on every snap and open things up underneath for the criminally underrated Golden Tate to make catches and pick up yards after contact.
17. Falcons: Sterling Shephard, WR Oklahoma
Dan Quinn saw what his former team in Seattle got out of Tyler Lockett as a rookie. He's already got the prototypical outside-X in Julio Jones and a solid No. 2 in Mohamed Sanu. Shephard can play in the slot or outside, and would give Matt Ryan another explosive weapon underneath. Most people have Shephard going in the second round.
18. Colts: Austin Johnson, NT Penn State
The Colts could use his run-plugging ability and may see some upside as a pass rusher. Most see Johnson as a second-rounder, but projections haven't stopped the Colts from taking the guy the like the most in the past.
19. Bills: Braxton Miller, WR Ohio State
Upside, upside, upside. That's what you get with Braxton Miller, and the Bills would be reaching here to select a guy who can pair opposite Sammy Watkins for years. Building a playmaking crew around Tyrod Taylor is a smart plan.
20. Jets: Hunter Henry, TE Arkansas
It's a down year for tight ends and many projections have Henry falling to the second round. However, teams may see a stout run blocker and impact player in the pass game, and not want to wait to get their guy. The idea of what they could do in red zone with Henry, Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker is attractive, and he could be a force blocking for Matt Forte, Bilal Powell and Khiry Robinson.
21. Washington: Hassan Ridgeway, DT Texas
Scot McCloughan has always prioritized building from the trenches, and Ridgeway would bring toughness and versatility to the Washington defensive front. Most outlets have him going somewhere in the second round but in this scenario, perhaps McCloughan sees him as one of the most immovable players in the run defense with some upside as a pass rusher still. Ridgeway can play five-technique or on the nose in certain sets.
22. Texans: Tyler Boyd, WR Pitt
Houston needs to pair someone with DeAndre Hopkins. Boyd has been knocked for less-than-stellar testing numbers, but he's one of the most polished receivers in this class. He would give Brock Osweiler a dependable playmaker underneath.
23. Vikings: Su'a Cravens, WLB USC
While most expect the Vikings to choose a receiver here, Mike Zimmer could instead get a playmaking weakside linebacker for his defense. He doesn't have prototypical size, but the instincts are off the charts.
24. Bengals: Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
Tools. That's what Shilique Calhoun has. Marvin Lewis and company can mold them to create a consistent pass rusher and run defender. The Bengals have always liked long, athletic defensive ends in their scheme and Calhoun fits the bill, even if it's a round or two before most analysts project him.
25. Steelers: Nick Vannett, TE Ohio State
With Heath Miller now retired, the Steelers will look to find another do-it-all throwback of a tight end. Ladarius Green is more of a move type of tight end, and the jury's still out on Jesse James, so the chance to grab Vannett here is too enticing for the Steelers. Vannett will need to develop as a pass and run blocker, but has prototypical size and athleticism for the role and could play in-line in multiple personnel groupings. He's not a first rounder on most outlets' boards, but in a thin class at the position, Pittsburgh strikes while they still can.
26. Seahawks: T.J. Green, DB Clemson
A tall, fast, physical and confident former wide receiver-turned defensive back? Fits Seattle's M.O. for a corner convert. The Seahawks like versatility in their defensive backs and Green has all the physical attributes they look for. Normally Seattle gets their corners in the mid-rounds, but maybe they make an exception here for T.J. Green.
27. Packers: Jihad Ward, DE Illinois
Physical, long, tough, athletic -- Jihad Ward checks a lot of boxes for Ted Thompson, and while this may seem like a stretch here, the defensive tackle/defensive end was invited to Chicago for the first round of the draft.
28. Chiefs: Connor McGovern, OG Missouri
Kansas City could see a lot of what they saw in Mitch Morse in Connor McGovern, and with needs at both guard spots on the interior line, the athletic and tough McGovern makes a lot of sense. He can also play tackle in a pinch. He's not projected to go this high, but neither was Morse last year when the Chiefs grabbed him in the second round.
29. Cardinals: Cardale Jones, QB Ohio State
This would be a crazy one, but weirder things have happened. The Cardinals obviously love a quarterback that can sling the ball downfield and have the advantage of already having a franchise quarterback in Carson Palmer. That means Jones can sit and learn. The Cardinals also don't have a second-round pick, and Jones may not make it out of the second round. What's that mean? A reach into the first.
30. Panthers: Javon Hargrave, DT South Carolina State
The Panthers probably don't need another defensive lineman, but building through the trenches has been a big part of their identity, so why stop now? Hargrave is an FCS standout who has flown under the radar, but the dude is disruptive, powerful and quick. He'd get time in the Panthers' rotation early on in his career and have the potential as a three-down, one-gapper for Carolina a year or two down the line.
31. Broncos: Connor Cook, QB Michigan State
The Broncos still need a quarterback, and the market for them just hasn't really worked out in Denver's favor. When the Colin Kaepernick trade blows up in the hangar, Denver might decide to take a chance on Cook. He looks the part and has the tools. Could he develop in Gary Kubiak's system?
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In the end, maybe ... maaaaaybe ... one or two of these will actually end up happening. The point of the exercise was certainly not accuracy. Rather, I set out to consider some wild plot twists -- perhaps the board ends up falling differently than we expect or maybe a team or two gets a wild hair on a lower-rated player and decides to pull the trigger. Weird things happen every year.