It’s perfectly reasonable that NFL scouts and college football fans would assess top talent differently. Scouts are making a projection of what the player could become over an NFL career against pro talent. College is about the immediate—what has a player done and against whom did he do it?
Still, it’s always a little jarring watching the NFL draft speculation play out over debates that seem rather lopsided to avid college football viewers (like why is Joshua Dobbs be discussed as a possible first-round pick?). So as an exercise for an alternate universe, it’s interesting to imagine how the first round might play out if NFL teams only looked what college players had done on the field. No 40 times, no hand size, no questions about whether players can handle the verbiage of the offense—just on-field production.
For this, we’ll consider the real needs NFL teams will be looking to fill in the draft. But rather than selecting who projects to have the best pro career at those spots, they’ll take the players with the best college careers. (For a projection of how the draft might actually go, check out Chris Burke's latest Mock Draft.)
Myles Garrett may be the obvious No. 1 pick in the real draft, but if we’re looking at college on-field production only, no one took over games like Watson.
The top pure defensive player in college football last season, Allen could join DeForest Buckner as young anchors on the Niners’ defensive line.
The Bears solve their need for a defensive playmaker by drafting Peppers. Safety? Cornerback? Linebacker? Whatever position Peppers is, the Bears could use some help.
RB, Florida State
The Jags need a dynamic back to take some of the pressure off Blake Bortles, so they spring for Cook, turning to a Florida State star for their first-round pick for the second straight year.
Marcus Mariota could use another weapon on the outside to pair with Rishard Matthews, so this is a perfect landing spot for Westbrook, the Heisman Trophy finalist who racked up 1,524 receiving yards last season.
The jack-of-all-trade Jackson fills several holes for the Jets. Mainly he steps in to help shore up the secondary, but perhaps Todd Bowles throws him out on offense for a few plays, too.
S, Ohio State
The Chargers fill their biggest need with Hooker, the top safety in the draft, who nabbed seven interceptions, including three pick-sixes.
The Panthers could use help in their rushing and receiving options, so why not grab the college player who excelled at both? McCaffrey racked up 3,622 rushing yards and 955 receiving yards in the past two seasons.
DE, Texas A&M
If this mock draft is based purely on college performance, you might argue why not take someone like Derek Barnett who topped Garrett in sacks (13.0 to 8.5) and tackles for loss (19.0 to 15.0) last season against similar competition? Barnett was dominant (as his pick at No. 12 indicates), but few players could take over a game like Garrett could when he was healthy.
The FBS record-holder for receiving yards in a career forms a perfect partnership with Sammy Watkins. Tyrod Taylor won’t be able to use his receiving options as an excuse with this pair in place.
With arguably the worst pass defense in the NFL last season, the Saints must address their secondary. Lewis, the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year, is a good place to start.
Having already addressed their QB needs with Watson at No. 1, the Browns turn their sights toward their pass rush and select one of the most productive defensive ends in the country last season.
QB, Texas Tech
Figuring out who was the second-most productive college quarterback in this draft class is tough because of the elite passers coming back (Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Jake Browning, Mason Rudolph, etc.). But it’s hard to argue with the ridiculous numbers Mahomes put up over the last two years (9,505 passing yards, 77 touchdowns).
The Eagles will likely go cornerback or running back with this pick, but with Jackson and Lewis off the board and Fournette still on it, this is an easy decision.
The Colts’ defense allowed six yards per play last year, so this unit needs plenty of help. Foster is the perfect type of player to build around because he’ll fly to the ball to make tackles and can also help in coverage.
The Ravens released Elvis Dumervil, so they could use a new linebacker who knows how to get to the quarterback. With 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons, Williams fits the bill.
The Redskins’ defensive line rebuild could use some youth, and Walker might be the top overall player still on the board, so this is a good match.
The Titans are in the market for a cornerback after Jason McCourty’s release. King was so good in 2015, when he intercepted eight passes, that quarterbacks almost entirely stopped throwing on him in 2016.
The workhorse back from Texas is the best value here to make Doug Martin expendable.
Robinson becomes the first offensive lineman off the board and could step into a starting left tackle spot right away in Denver.
The Lions could use an injection of talent on defense, and Watt could start right away after racking up 14.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season at Wisconsin.
Anderson was an incredibly productive outside linebacker at Alabama, finishing the 2016 season with 18.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He could partner with Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons in the Dolphins’ linebacking corps.
DT, Michigan State
Johnathan Hankins’s departure increases the Giants’ need to address defensive tackle early in the draft, so they nab the No. 1 DT on the board.
Cunningham is a steal this late in the first round, as the playmaker is coming off a season in which he recorded 119 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.
QB, North Carolina
The Texans are desperate for a quarterback, and while Trubisky doesn’t have the lengthy track record of Watson and Mahomes, his 2016 season (68% completion rate, 3,748 yards passing, 30 touchdowns, six interceptions) was impressive.
The Seahawks need to rebuild in the secondary, and Tabor—who talks a big game and has the production to back it up—should fit right in.
RB, San Diego State
As the only player in this draft class who finished in the top 10 of the Heisman vote still on the board, Pumphrey brings great value this late in the first round. He could be the perfect counterpart to Spencer Ware to keep Ware from getting worn down like he did last season.
Thomas had a breakout season in 2016, finishing the year with 14.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He bolsters the Cowboys’ pass rush.
CB, Ohio State
The Packers have to address their secondary after allowing a league-worst 8.1 yards per attempt, so they opt for Lattimore who shined in his lone season as a starter with nine passes broken up and four interceptions.
After placing three defensive backs in last year’s draft, Clemson sends Tankersley to the Steelers, who draft a cornerback in the first round for the second straight year.
Vic Beasley needs some help, and Dimick has been one of the most productive defensive ends when he’s been on the field the past three seasons. He had 13.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a sophomore in 2014, and after an injury-shortened 2015, he came back to make 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks last season.
Having addressed their secondary earlier in the first, the Saints turn to their defensive line that recorded just 30 sacks last season. McKinley put up a monstrous season in 2016 (18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks) that flew a little under the radar due to UCLA’s struggles.