A surprise pass-rusher lands in Top 5 with Jets

A surprise pass-rusher lands in Top 5 with Jets


Jermaine Johnson treated image, green middle stripe

There is more uncertainty at the top of the draft than there has been in many years, making any forecast a bit of an adventure. Even the first pick is still unknown. But we’re running out of time, so here’s another guess at how the top of the draft is going to go – my latest, and perhaps last, Mock Top 10, version 6.0:

1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Georgia DE Travon Walker

Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson is the closest thing to a consensus No. 1 in this draft, and maybe 25-30 GMs would take him here. But none of them are Jaguars GM Trent Baalke, who has apparently fallen hard for the 6-foot-5, 272-pound Walker. Those that know Baalke says he favors measurables over production, which tips the scales to Walker who had an eye-popping combine with a 4.51 in the 40, a vertical jump of 35.5 inches and a three-cone drill of 6.89 seconds. He only had 9 ½ sacks in 29 starts for the Bulldogs, though. Maybe that’s why this pick isn’t locked in yet. Hutchinson and N.C. State OT Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu are reportedly under consideration too. But Baalke is the man in charge.

2. Detroit Lions – Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson

The Lions may set a speed record for turning in their draft card if the Jaguars do indeed take Walker, and the screams from coach Dan Campbell in the Detroit war room will be heard all the way in Vegas. Taking this 6-foot-6, 265-pound hometown kid is the no-brainer pick of the draft. The Lions need a difference-making pass rusher and Hutchinson had 14 ½ sacks and 16 ½ tackles for loss for the Wolverines last season. He’s also the type of energetic and fiery player that Campbell loves, which is why he’d be the pick over Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, whose “fire” has been questioned by a variety of insiders and scouts.

3. Houston Texans – North Carolina OT Ikem ‘Ickey’ Ekwonu

The Texans, being the Texans, are a real wild card here. New GM, Nick Caserio is a bit of a mystery and they have holes all over their roster. At the combine, it sounded like new coach Lovie Smith preferred to take a defensive lineman here. The latest rumor, though, is that he’s pushing for a cornerback – possibly Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, but maybe even LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. But I’m going to choose Door No. 3 and the player many believe might be the best overall prospect in the draft.

The Texans definitely need to boost their offensive line to make life easier for their young quarterback, Davis Mills. LT Laremy Tunsil probably won’t be around Houston beyond this year and Ekwonu could begin his career as a guard, if necessary. The buzz about the corners is strong, but they pick again at 13 and Stingley might still be there then.

4. JETS – Florida State DE Jermaine Johnson

This is going to feel like a surprise, late surge, but don’t make that mistake: Scouts have loved the 6-foot-5, 254-pound Johnson all the way through this process. He’s just been overshadowed by the two pass rushers at the top and by the mystifying journey of Thibodeaux. Johnson is big, fast, and he was incredibly productive for the Seminoles – 11 ½ sacks and 17 ½ tackles for loss last year. I’ve heard for months he’d be a Top 10 pick. Now the buzz is he’s going Top 5, which would put him right here.

I still believe the Jets are going to take an edge rusher here. I wouldn’t be completely shocked if it’s Thibodeaux. The Jets did a lot of work on him and I’m told that the coaches were OK with his personality and felt he answered all the supposed questions about his “fire”. But I also heard the front office isn’t as sold on him. None of them have issues with Johnson, though, and Saleh is going to love the way he plays fast and fierce. I should note there is a buzz that the Jets would consider Gardner here, but I’m not buying it because corner has never been a premium position in Saleh’s defense and they just boosted the secondary by signing free agent corner D.J. Reed.

The most interesting caveat is what happens if Ekwonu slips and the Jets have to choose between what is probably the top tackle on their board (if not the highest rated player) and a pass rusher. Everyone believes Douglas would take Ekwonu, possibly over his coach’s objections. I think they’re right, but I took that out of play by having Ekwonu go at No. 3 in this mock. It’s still a fascinating possibility to watch.

5. GIANTS – Alabama OT Evan Neal

Since the pre-draft process began, I have stubbornly refused to believe in any scenario where the Giants don’t take a starting right tackle here, especially with the Carolina Panthers a strong possibility to take a tackle at No. 6. And now, in the home stretch, nothing has changed. The only question I have for this Giants pick is: Which tackle? And the answer might depend on who is left.

Now, all the chatter about how much they love Mississippi State Charles Cross is accurate. They’ve certainly done a lot of work on him. But my understanding is that work was done because they know there’s a chance that Ekwonu and Neal both go in the Top 4 and they wanted to make sure Cross was a worthy alternative. I do think that they would take him here in that scenario, but my read from sources is that they rank him behind Ekwonu and Neal on their board. I don’t know whether they prefer Ekwonu or Neal, but I don’t think it matters because I’m confident at least one of them will be gone – likely Ekwonu, who is a candidate to be taken at Nos. 1, 3 and 4. So that leaves Neal, a massive (6-foot-7, 350), athletic tackle who they think could play either side.

Could they go off tackle and take someone like Gardner here if Neal and Cross are both still on the board? I guess, since they could then take whichever tackle the Panthers leave them. But I think they like Neal enough that they’d rather not wait. Taking a tackle at No. 5 has seemed like their preference all along.

6. Carolina Panthers – Mississippi State OT Charles Cross

It’s been quite the rollercoaster ride for the quarterbacks in this draft. For months it seemed none of them were Top 10 worthy. Then there was a flurry of thought that three might go in the Top 10 and everyone wanted to trade up for one. Now, it’s all settled down again. The Panthers, home of Sam Darnold, would be the first likely spot for a quarterback, but I get the sense they wouldn’t take one this high. They are definitely in the quarterback market and may still make a play for Baker Mayfield, but whoever they use this year has to be protected.

Now, much like the Giants, they are rumored to really like the 6-foot-5, 307-pound Cross – which is good, because if any of the Top 3 get this far, it is almost certainly going to be him. He’s not as clean a prospect as the other two, but at least he’ll help whomever they start at quarterback have a little more time to throw.

7. GIANTS – Cincinnati CB Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner

I felt very strongly about this pick until Schoen’s pre-draft press conference when a reporter asked him about veteran CB James Bradberry and began by nothing there was a chance the Giants could land the best cornerback in this draft. Schoen quickly shot back “There’s going to be a No. 1 corner at 5?” It sure didn’t sound like he thought one would be there, which now makes sense since there’s buzz that Gardner could go 3rd or 4th to the Texans or the Jets. If Gardner is gone, I think the Giants would take an edge rusher like Jermaine Johnson – someone I’ve heard defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale really likes. Maybe even the free-falling Thibodeaux, though I’ve heard they are very mixed on him. In that case, they could address corner at the top of Round 2.

But, if Gardner lasts this long, multiple NFL people have told me that Martindale loves the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder and at least one scout told me he thinks he’s a “dream” pick for the Giants. Certainly, getting him would make moving on from Bradberry a lot easier.

One caveat: I still keep hearing the Giants want to trade down and acquire a first-rounder in 2023 (as I reported last month). In fact, I heard it’s their preference. Someone has to want to move up, though, and it doesn’t sound like there’s a huge market for that. There’s some speculation about the Steelers at No. 20 trying to move up for a quarterback, but I don’t believe they will.

8. Atlanta Falcons – Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson

With Calvin Ridley suspended for a year there is no doubt the Falcons are eyeing a replacement in this draft and the 6-foot, 183-pound Wilson makes the most sense since he’s eerily similar to Ridley. They could go with the bigger Drake London, but they already have what is essentially a big receiver in tight end Kyle Pitts. Wilson, who I think would definitely be a Jets target at No. 10, would bring the explosion to their offense and really help out new quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I would be surprised if they picked one here because I hear that Falcons coach Arthur Smith is fond of Mariota from their days together in Tennessee, and Mariota, a former second-overall pick (2015), is still only 28 years old.

9. Seattle Seahawks – Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux

The slide has to stop somewhere, right? This whole process has been quite an adventure for the 6-foot-4, 254-pound Thibodeaux. For months he was the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in the draft. Then an anonymous scout questioned his “fire” and suddenly more piled on. He can still play and he’s a no-doubt, first-round talent. It’s just hard to pinpoint where he’ll go. I’ve heard everywhere from No. 3 to No. 14. But I don’t think he’ll fall out of the Top 10, and the Seahawks need a pass rusher. And they’ve got to figure that allowing Thibodeaux to escape the spotlight and stay up in the Pacific Northwest can only help.

What about a quarterback, you ask? After trading Russell Wilson, they can’t possibly be willing to go with Geno Smith and Drew Lock. Well, I don’t think they are, but I get the sense they believe they can find a good-enough quarterback in Round 2.

10. JETS – USC WR Drake London

There are some very interesting possibilities with this pick. For one, I’ve heard since January that the Jets would love to move down, especially if they could get a 2023 first rounder in a package. If they do, Alabama WR Jameson Williams could be in play. And actually, he might even be in play here because many believe he’s the best receiver in this class. It just seems foolish to use a Top 10 pick on a player who might not be ready to play until November, due to his torn ACL.

If they stay here it probably comes down to a choice between Wilson and the 6-foot-4, 219-pound London – whichever one gets by Atlanta at No. 8. I think Wilson is a better fit in the Jets’ offense, but London gives them a size and physical element they just don’t have. But the final possibility is really the most interesting. Would they dangle this pick in a trade offer for 49ers WR Deebo Samuel? Right now, the 49ers aren’t willing to deal him, but things change. The Jets nearly got Tyreek Hill from Kansas City for their two second-rounders, but I heard then they were willing to use the 10th pick in a trade if the package was right (like if they got something else in return). The 49ers don’t have a first-round pick to deal this year or next year, which seemingly makes that unlikely, but not impossible.

It’s just so much more pragmatic if they just take a receiver here, though – especially someone with the size and sure hands that London has. Don’t completely rule out Williams, though. That will depend on his medical evaluation and whether Douglas thinks he’s so good that he’ll be worth the wait.


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