Jon Robinson’s midseason firing has to be a harbinger of a more widespread shake-up for a franchise that just a year ago was the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs. No matter the form or extent of the rebuild, significant work needs to be done to a crumbling offensive front, especially if the team dumps longtime left tackle Taylor Lewan in a cost-saving move. An astute run blocker with the athleticism to become a top-flight pass protector, Johnson should be an attractive building block for fellow former Buckeye Mike Vrabel.
Houston can’t expect for Bryce Young – or any other quarterback – to single-handedly save an offense that ranked 31st with just 17 points per game. Enter Johnston, a 6-4, 215-pound burner who’s equally comfortable hauling in deep bombs as he is evading defenders after slants.
Injuries were the catalyst for several of the Jets’ five quarterback changes, but it was untenable play behind center – primarily from second-year signal-caller Zach Wilson – that sunk Gang Green’s once-promising season. A young core might give New York the flexibility to pursue a quick-fix veteran solution, so the Jets can turn their attention to another area of concern with this pick. Jones, an ascendant talent still finding his way at left tackle after his first year as a full-time starter, could provide some long-term stability after Mekhi Becton’s fractured kneecap necessitated last August’s signing of 37-year-old Duane Brown.
14. New England Patriots – Jordan Addison, WR, USC
New England’s offensive woes won’t be resolved merely by the arrival of one figure, be it a coach or a player, and Belichick’s historical aversion to first-round receivers should be noted. But leading receiver Jakobi Meyers is poised to be a free agent, and it’s unclear how much can be expected of second-rounder Tyquan Thornton in Year 2. At 6-0 and 175 pounds, Addison doesn’t look the part of a first-round pass catcher, but his savvy working every level of the field could help him catch Belichick’s eye.
15. Green Bay Packers – Brian Branch, S/CB, Alabama
No, it’s not a first-round pass catcher for Aaron Rodgers or his eventual successor. The 6-0, 193-pound Branch isn’t as flashy as some of his more highly touted Crimson Tide peers in this draft, but whether in coverage or run support, he has a knack for finding the ball. The Packers’ future at safety is unclear with Adrian Amos and Rudy Ford no longer under contract, and Branch’s versatility would be an asset to the defense regardless of who returns.
16. Washington Commanders – Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida
In its quest to find a quarterback, Washington’s brain trust does what its passers can’t: repeatedly throw darts. Richardson, however, might represent one of the wildest gambles of all. A dazzling deep thrower with a rare blend of speed and power as a runner, the 6-4, 232-pound quarterback is a singular prospect in any draft class. But that’s also partly due to his maddening inconsistency as a passer, leaving him very much an unknown entity at this point in his career. Starting him anytime soon would be a massive risk for any NFL franchise, but would that really scare off the Commanders given their current outlook?
17. Pittsburgh Steelers – Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
There might be a few things to iron out in this potential marriage, as the elder Porter served as an assistant coach for his former team from 2014-18 but was fired by Mike Tomlin. But there’s little doubt that Porter’s ultra-physical approach would make him a fast favorite in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers could find themselves in a tough spot if Cameron Sutton signs elsewhere in March.
18. Detroit Lions – Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Detroit has a strong opportunity to keep its defensive youth movement rolling, but top talent at cornerback is sorely lacking. The Lions should have several potential answers in the first round, and the 6-2, 200-pound Gonzalez proved with four interceptions this season that he’s more than just an impressive package of size and speed.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
Maybe this is too cute for a team that has major problems areas elsewhere and could soon be facing life without Tom Brady. Still, Robinson is not merely a bell-cow ball carrier, as the Doak Walker Award winner’s electric ability to shake defenders in tight quarters or the open field and fluster defenses as a receiver position him as one of this draft’s most dynamic threats.
20. Seattle Seahawks – Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame
If the Seahawks bring back Geno Smith at quarterback, the veteran would stand to benefit greatly from the addition of another pass catcher to an offense that has tilted heavily toward DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. While Mayer won’t have anyone confusing him for Kyle Pitts or Travis Kelce given his athletic limitations, the 6-4, 265-pounder is one of the most sure-handed and reliable tight end prospects in years.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars – Cam Smith, CB, South Carolina
An opportunistic defense was responsible for lifting Jacksonville to its first AFC South title since 2017, but there’s still room to build out the burgeoning unit. Smith is highly aggressive and boasts the requisite traits to thrive in man coverage, making him an appealing option to place opposite Tyson Campbell.
22. New York Giants – Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
Big decisions are ahead for Big Blue, as the team will have to navigate the impending free agency of Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley. Assuming the Giants’ brain trust hangs on to both, the next order of business should be finding a receiver who can create the separation that was so hard to come by for this position group in 2022. No problem there for Smith-Njigba, a smooth route runner who should be a shoo-in for the first round despite missing all but three games in 2022 with a hamstring injury.
23. Los Angeles Chargers – Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson
As strong as the pull might be to equip Justin Herbert with more help up front or needed speed in the receiving corps, the Chargers shouldn’t overlook a talent like Simpson merely because of his listed position. Adept at handling a variety of matchups in coverage who can also make his mark as a blitzer, Simpson can be so much more than an off-ball linebacker – if used properly.
24. Baltimore Ravens – Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah
Utilizing his quick-twitch movements and advanced feel for the position, Phillips continually delivers performances one wouldn’t expect from a 5-10, 185-pound cornerback. While he will have to show he can hold up against the NFL’s most physical receivers, Phillips offers coverage ability that would allow the Ravens to continue to revamp their secondary with Marcus Peters unsigned beyond this season.
25. Dallas Cowboys – Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois
Despite unearthing a late-round gem in rookie nickel DaRon Bland, the Cowboys should still be on the hunt for more steadiness in the secondary. Combining sticky coverage skills with a flair for making plays on the ball when tested, Witherspoon would be an intriguing running mate for Travon Diggs.
26. Cincinnati Bengals – Antonio Johnson, S, Texas A&M
Jessie Bates III’s departure appears inevitable after the team issued the franchise tag last offseason, and Vonn Bell could also be headed out. Johnson isn’t a one-for-one replacement for either player, but it’s difficult to ignore the upside here given his versatility and penchant for making plays.
27. Denver Broncos (from San Francisco 49ers) – Anton Harrison, OT, Oklahoma
The Russell Wilson reclamation project is no doubt top priority in Denver, even if it’s not explicitly spoken by top brass. Upgrading at right tackle with Harrison would be an instant win for both Wilson and the rest of an offense that surrendered a league-worst 63 sacks.
28. Minnesota Vikings – Jaylon Jones, CB, Texas A&M
Having ranked 31st in pass defense (265.6 yards allowed per game) and with cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan set to become free agents, the Vikings’ secondary looks ripe for change. The 6-2, 205-pound Jones sizes up as a smart fit for Minnesota’s zone-heavy scheme.
29. Buffalo Bills – O’Cyrus Torrence, G, Florida
Shaky play on the interior has been one of the Bills’ few glaring issues, and the team is past due for a meaningful investment at guard. Torrence is a bulldozer in the run game, though he might be a liability early on in pass protection.
30. Kansas City Chiefs – Nolan Smith, OLB, Georgia
First-round rookie defensive end George Karlaftis notched 5 1/2 sacks in his final seven games, but there’s always room for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to build out his pass rush. So long as Smith’s recovery from a season-tending torn pectoral muscle is on track, the 6-3, 235-pounder should be an enticing option for any team willing to be creative with his deployment.
31. Philadelphia Eagles – BJ Ojulari, DE/OLB, LSU
What do you get the team that boasted the NFL’s best record and topped the league with 70 sacks? If you’re Howie Roseman, maybe still more speed off the edge. Ojulari brings plenty of that with a blistering first step, which should become even more imposing if he can develop a better plan for his rush.