College football’s bowl season ended with quite the crescendo — particularly for fans of talent-starved NFL teams.
LSU’s win over Clemson for the national championship marked the end of illustrious collegiate careers for several players, but the game also reinforced that many of the participants will play prominent roles in the upcoming draft process. And while several of the stars (including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, wide receiver Justyn Ross and LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.) aren’t yet eligible to make the jump, many are poised to create a significant buzz in the coming months as they prepare for their pro careers.
Here’s USA TODAY Sports’ latest first-round mock draft after the title game:
1. Bengals — Joe Burrow, QB, LSU: A 15-0 record, Heisman Trophy, national title and record 60 passing touchdowns made for quite the single-season output. At the NFL level, though, Burrow’s senior campaign will go down as what launched him from afterthought to clear front-runner for the No. 1 pick. Though Cincinnati’s coaches won’t get an up-close look at him as they work the Senior Bowl next week, there shouldn’t be much mystery left about this selection.
2. Redskins — Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: Sure, new coach Ron Rivera hasn’t tipped his hand as to how his priorities in Washington might translate to the top of the draft. It’s almost unfathomable, however, that the Redskins would bypass the class’ premier pass rusher for anything other than a colossal trade offer.
3. Lions — Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State: Tua Tagovailoa’s entry into the draft creates an interesting dynamic at this slot, as a bidding war for a quarterback could benefit Detroit. Might some team offer a package similar to what the Jets conceded to the Colts in 2018 (three second-round picks) to move from No. 6 to No. 3? Okudah is hardly a consolation prize, however, as he’s in a tier of his own at an all-important position.
4. Giants — Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Giants: New coach Joe Judge seemed to be channeling general manager Dave Gettleman when he vowed the Giants would employ an “old-school, physical mentality.” That mentality might push them toward Wills, a surprisingly fleet-footed protector who erases opponents in the run game.
5. Dolphins — Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: Maybe hip surgery won’t leave Tagovailoa out of action until the draft after all. His agent, Leigh Steinberg, said this week he expects the quarterback to be healthy by April and participate in a throwing session for teams. The former point is more important than the latter, as medical questions should be the only reason the Dolphins should have pause on an otherwise alluring passer.
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6. Chargers — Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon: As arguably the top prospect at the Senior Bowl this week, Herbert could amplify the buzz surrounding him by showing off his considerable physical tools. The Chargers have to be thinking about their future at quarterback — be it in the near or long term — as they move into their new digs, and the 6-6, 237-pound signal-caller has the downfield throwing aptitude to take advantage of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
7. Panthers — Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia: Luke Kuechly’s surprising retirement makes Carolina’s rebuild all the more imposing. A good first step in that plan would be providing the stability at left tackle this organization has lacked since Jordan Gross’ retirement in 2014. Thomas fits the bill as a smooth blind-side protector who can also pave openings for Christian McCaffrey.
8. Cardinals — Isaiah Simmons, LB/S, Clemson: The national title game served as a showcase for how much Simmons can do, as he repeatedly disrupted plays by pressuring Burrow, closing in coverage and holding firm against the run from a variety of positions. That versatility should come in handy for an Arizona defense that yielded a league-worst 402 yards per game.
9. Jaguars — Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn: No one in college football dominated games on the interior in 2019 quite like Brown, who became a fixture in opposing backfields. With Marcell Dareus a seeming long shot to stick around due to his $22.5 million cap hit, Brown would give Jacksonville a promising player to pair inside with 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan.
10. Browns — Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa: Cleveland is still on the hunt for a general manager to pair with Kevin Stefanski, but it’s clear both the new coach and the organization want to provide more support for Baker Mayfield. That effort likely has to start up front, where the massively powerful Wirfs would be an immediate asset.
11. Jets — Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama: With the top three offensive tackles off the board at this point, Gang Green might need to take an alternate route to provide relief for Sam Darnold. Getting a true No. 1 target in the savvy and reliable Jeudy might allow Darnold to make quicker — and better — decisions.
12. Raiders — CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma: Capitalizing on a loaded receiver class is a must for the Silver and Black as the franchise kicks things off in Las Vegas. Lamb’s knack for pulling down jump balls would add a new dimension to the passing game.
13. Colts — A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa: Though Indianapolis has used multiple picks at defensive end in recent years, this might not be an area where the Colts can afford to stand pat, particularly if Jabaal Sheard doesn’t return. At 6-6 and 280 pounds with enough elasticity to snake his way into the backfield, Epenesa offers the kind of package that Chris Ballard might be drawn to.
14. Buccaneers — Mekhi Becton, OT, Louisville: It’s hard to find linemen who move the way Becton does at 6-7, 369 pounds, so he should have no shortage of suitors early in the draft. Though Becton might require some refinement before taking on elite NFL pass rushers, Bruce Arians’ offense demands better protection than Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson have been providing.
15. Broncos — Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama: Dismissing offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello after only one season and installing Pat Shurmur as his replacement proved Denver won’t settle for status quo as Drew Lock enters Year 2 as the team’s long-sought answer at quarterback. Ruggs’ rare speed would contrast well with big-bodied receiver Courtland Sutton’s playing style and create more big-play opportunities downfield.
16. Falcons — Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama: Though Atlanta’s most pressing issues might be along the defensive line, this unit could use reinforcements at nearly every level. Diggs’ aggressive approach and impressive closing ability make him an imposing matchup for receivers.
17. Cowboys — Grant Delpit, S, LSU: Dallas’ dalliance with the Jets on a potential trade for Jamal Adams showed the team had interest in adding a playmaker at safety, so why not move down the line to the next LSU product? Delpit’s range would come in handy for a secondary that will be under pressure to find the ball more often in 2020.
18. Dolphins (from Steelers) — Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State: Taco Charlton led Miami with a meager five sacks, and his standing with the team is unclear after he was made inactive for three of the final four games. Gross-Matos checks off a lot of boxes as a speed rusher off the edge,
19. Raiders (from Bears) — Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina: Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock weren’t satisfied with the improvements this year’s defensive line made, as the Raiders brought on Rod Marinelli to coach the group in 2020. Adding the quick-moving Kinlaw on the interior with Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell on the outside would make for a promising young core.
20. Jaguars (from Rams) — Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU: It’s hard for a first-round cornerback to be overlooked in his own secondary, but Fulton might not have received his due this year after playing alongside the Thorpe Award winner Delpit and the freshman star Stingley. At some point in the draft, Jacksonville needs to find a replacement for Jalen Ramsey.
21. Eagles — Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson: The necessity for the Eagles to upgrade Carson Wentz’s receiving corps was evident long before Philadelphia wound down the season with a skeleton crew of pass-catchers. The simple solution: Let Higgins go to work on the outside and increase Wentz’s margin for error with his jump-ball skills.
22. Bills — Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado: If Josh Allen’s devil-may-care approach is to be harnessed into a more tenable style of play, the quarterback needs a well-built receiver on the outside. Enter Shenault, a dynamic threat who’s tough to bring down in the open field and would be an intriguing piece for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
23. Patriots — Cole Kmet, TE, Notre Dame: While New England’s future with Tom Brady remains unclear, perhaps it’s time for Bill Belichick and Co. to focus on a different glaring issue. As the draft’s top talent at tight end, Kmet might help fill the Rob Gronkowski-sized hole in this offense.
24. Saints — C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida: Much like the Patriots, the Saints will be difficult to suss out until they address a quarterback room full of pending free agents. Until then, it makes sense for them to take a closer look at cornerback, where Eli Apple and P.J. Williams are set to hit the open market.
25. Vikings — Austin Jackson, OT, USC: Minnesota’s meltdown against the 49ers reinforced that the offensive line has to be addressed in some form. The biggest shortcomings are on the interior, but drafting Jackson could still allow for a reshuffling, particularly if Riley Reiff moves to guard.
26. Dolphins (from Texans) — Josh Jones, OT, Houston: Between Miami’s 58 sacks allowed and rate of 3.3 yards per carry, it’s clear an investment needs to be made up front, especially if an ascending talent like Jones is available in the first round.
27. Seahawks — K’Lavon Chaisson, DE/OLB, LSU: Even if Jadeveon Clowney re-signs — and that’s not a given — Seattle still looks to be lacking off the edge after mustering just 28 sacks in 2019. Chaisson has the bend and burst that NFL teams will make a bet on.
28. Ravens — Terrell Lewis, DE/OLB, Alabama: Going the Ozzie Newsome route by picking up an Alabama product with considerable upside would be a fitting way for Eric DeCosta to address a pass rush in need of revitalization.
29. Titans — Julian Okwara, DE/OLB, Notre Dame: Mike Vrabel has thrown an assortment of players into the pass-rushing mix, yet none have proven consistent threats. Tennessee can ramp up its efforts on this front by grabbing Okwara, who’s still learning the finer points of his position but has a tantalizing athletic profile.
30. Packers — KJ Hamler, WR, Penn State: Aaron Rodgers desperately needs another trusted target beyond Davante Adams, who had eight of the 10 catches by Packers receivers in the divisional round. Hamler’s penchant for turning quick hits into long gains would make him a winning option for the two-time MVP.
31. Chiefs — Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma: Kansas City is overdue for an upgrade at linebacker, and Murray might make a noticeable difference for this group given his speed.
32. 49ers — Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama: If plugged into a San Francisco defense loaded with playmakers, McKinney should have no trouble settling in as a reliable defender operating both against the run and in coverage.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.