How many discussions about sports focus not around what did happen, but what could have happened? The number is high.
What if Robert McClain hadn’t dropped a potential pick-six early in Super Bowl 50? What if the Texans had taken Derek Carr? What if the Rams and Redskins never completed their trade that sent RG3 to Washington? There is an infinite list of alternate endings in NFL history, some dwarfing the actual, less exotic outcomes.
With that in mind, and before the 2016 draft takes center stage, we turn our attention back to last April and the ’15 draft. How much different would the first round have been if the teams knew what they now know about the players selected?
Let’s find out ...
1. Re-draft pick: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
(Original pick: Winston)
His turnover rate (2.8% of passes intercepted, six fumbles) was too high, his completion percentage (58.3%) too low. But as far as rookie seasons for quarterbacks go, Winston was strong enough to solidify his spot here.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
(Original pick: Mariota)
3. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
(Original pick: Dante Fowler, DE, Florida)
• BISHOP: Gurley, man: Rams' RB embodies traits of legends
4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
(Original pick: Cooper)
• 2016 NFL off-season outlooks, team by team
5. Leonard Williams, DE, USC
(Original pick: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa)
For whatever reason, it feels like Williams’s impressive rookie season flew under the radar. He played nearly 800 snaps, though, the majority of them productive. With Williams sliding a couple spots, the DE-needy Redskins pounce. Rather than jump into a group paced by Muhammed Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, Williams would have been the lead dog in Washington.
6. Preston Smith, OLB, Mississippi State
(Original pick: Williams)
7. Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
(Original pick: Kevin White, WR, West Virginia)
Lining up for the majority of a season with Christian Jones and Shea McClellin starting at inside linebacker was ... well, it was one way to go. NFL teams tend to eschew inside linebacker-types this high in the draft, but how badly could the Bears have used Kendricks, whom Minnesota took at No. 45? He thrived in the Vikings’ 4–3 scheme but actually seemed a better 3–4 fit when the draft occurred.
8. Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State
(Original pick: Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson)
• BURKE: Time to get Matt Ryan back on track this off-season
9. Mario Edwards Jr., DE, Florida State
(Original pick: Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami)
Edwards dropped into Round 2 in large part because of concerns over his effort—he too often dialed it back for the Seminoles, never quite reaching his potential. It wasn't a problem last season. Edwards turned in 42 tackles and a pair of sacks for Oakland but dominated at times. The looming red flag: A neck injury that knocked Edwards to IR and could be serious moving forward. Healthy, he may finally have figured it out.
10. Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State
(Original pick: Todd Gurley)
• BURKE: NFL mock draft—projecting first two rounds
11. Byron Jones, CB/S, UConn
(Original pick: Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State)
The Vikings have one of the best safeties in football, Harrison Smith, patrolling one starting spot—Pro Football Focus named him a first-team All-Pro and he earned a Pro Bowl nod. They as of yet have been unable to find any such permanent answer at the other safety spot. Enter Jones, a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in Dallas. He, like Smith, is versatile so the Vikings could play around with their safety duo to keep opposing offenses guessing.
12. Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State
(Original pick: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington)
13. Stephone Anthony, LB, Clemson
(Original pick: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford)
Sorry, New Orleans: No waiting until pick 31 for Anthony this time around. Not after Anthony racked up 112 tackles in his rookie season. The tackle total was inflated by the utter mess around him—this was the league's worst-ranked scoring defense, after all—but Anthony showed more than enough potential to be in New Orleans’s plans for years.
14. Marcus Peters, CB, Washington
(Original pick: DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville)
Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Brent Grimes, 33 years old in July and due $18 million over the next two seasons, can maintain his status as Miami’s No. 1 corner. The Dolphins still need help alongside him. Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters could have provided it, in turn making fellow CB Jamar Taylor more of an helpful player by limiting his responsibilities.
15. La’el Collins, G, LSU
(Original pick: Traded to San Diego; Chargers selected Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin)
• KLEMKO: Get to know the potential No. 1 draft pick
16. Adrian Amos, S, Penn State
(Original pick: Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest)
Johnson wasn’t bad at all in his rookie year, and in fact played the most snaps of any Texans defensive back despite fracturing his foot. Keeping this pick unchanged would be a fine approach. The switch to Amos covers two bases: First, it acknowledges what absolute thievery it was for Chicago to score Amos in Round 5, and second, it helps Houston stabilize what was an unsettled position. Amos also can handle a variety of roles, so he pairs with just about any combination of DBs Houston would have on the field.
17. Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa
(Original pick: Traded to San Francisco; 49ers selected Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon)
Scherff’s selection way up at No. 5 overall coupled with his permanent placement at right guard combined to drive criticism Washington’s way. Most of it was misguided. Scherff shook off a shaky start to 2015 and eventually became the mauler everyone expected. If he had been taken down here, by a Chargers’ team that continues to have myriad issues up front, the pick would have come off as a value.
18. Dante Fowler, DE, Florida
(Original pick: Marcus Peters)
Tough to determine exactly what Fowler’s stock would be if a team had to draft him knowing he would miss his entire rookie season. This still might be too high. Talent-wise, it’s much too low. Fowler is a three-down player with the size to stuff the run and athleticism to reach the QB. Kansas City would have had the pieces in place (Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Dee Ford) to let him sit for a year, then moved him into Hali’s place for 2016.
19. VIC BEASLEY
(Original pick: Cameron Erving, C, Florida State)
• BURKE: Handing out awards for 2015 NFL season
20. Donovan Smith, OT, Penn State
(Original pick: Nelson Agholor, WR, USC)
Smith was the best rookie left tackle in 2015, and the Eagles would have loved to have him as their safety net, able to spell an injured and inconsistent Jason Peters for a year before taking his job. Between Smith and right tackle Lane Johnson (with a new contract extension through 2021), Philadelphia could turn its focus elsewhere, more than content with its bookends.
21. Malcom Brown, DT, Texas
Original pick: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M
The Bengals will head into this off-season searching for Domata Peko’s eventual (perhaps sooner rather than later) replacement. They could have taken care of it during the 2015 draft by taking Brown, the eventual No. 32 pick who quickly became instrumental up front for New England. A Brown-Geno Atkins pairing up the middle? Good luck getting through that.
22. Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest
(Original pick: Bud Dupree, OLB, Kentucky)
Dupree faded over the season’s second half, although his long-term outlook still points north. Johnson would have brought more to the Steelers’ party last season and beyond, in the latter case offering insurance ahead of a key off-season—William Gay, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake all are free agents, while Senquez Golson missed the 2015 season with a shoulder injury.
23. Rob Havenstein, OT, Wisconsin
(Original pick: Traded to Denver; Broncos selected Shane Ray, OLB, Missouri)
The Lions rolled through LaAdrian Waddle, Cornelius Lucas and Michael Ola at right tackle last season, rather surprisingly finding a temporary answer in Ola after claiming him off waivers. Meanwhile, Havenstein was a 13-game starter that didn’t allow a single sack and helped pave the way for Gurley. This is the type of blocker Detroit still needs.
24. Damarious Randall, CB/S, Arizona State
(Original pick: D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida)
Randall and fellow rookie Quentin Rollins served critical roles in Green Bay’s run to the postseason. They did so at cornerback, which wasn’t necessarily a huge need in Arizona. It could be now as Jerraud Powers approaches free agency, an untested group behind Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel. Randall could have pitched in there, as well as at safety when Arizona was hit with injuries there in 2015. His rookie season hinted at a lengthy and successful NFL career.
25. Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington
(Original pick: Thompson)
• MAYS: Who are you really getting in top free agents?
26. Markus Golden, OLB, Missouri
(Original pick: Breshad Perriman, WR, UCF)
Terrell Suggs’ season-ending Achilles injury set Baltimore’s defense back in a number of ways, not the least of which being that it forced rookie Za’Darius Smith into significant playing time before he was ready. The disappointing results were no surprise, save for Smith’s 3.5-sack burst in Weeks 15–17. Golden also needed a little time to find his groove—not to mention playing time. Once he did, Arizona couldn’t get him out of the lineup. He handled a multitude of jobs, from pass rushing to dropping in coverage.
27. Thomas Rawls, RB, Central Michigan
(Original pick: Byron Jones)
Basically flipped a coin between Rawls and Arizona’s David Johnson for this spot. Both were brilliant during the 2015 season and either would have found a nice home behind Dallas’s blocking scheme. Rawls was more explosive as a runner, compared to Johnson's do-everything game, so he gets the nod here as the Cowboys’ workhorse.
28. Shane Ray
Original pick: Traded to Detroit; Lions selected Laken Tomlinson, G, Duke
• VRENTAS: A super agent gets back in the game
Original pick: Phillip Dorsett, WR, Miami
If he wasn’t a mismatch for their 3–4 scheme, Kwon Alexander would have been the choice here—the Bucs’ rookie racked up 93 tackles, 3.0 sacks and two INTs out of a 4–3 alignment. For the Colts’ purposes Perryman is a better fit. He gave the Chargers 73 tackles last season and is a stud against the run, meaning he would have meshed well with Jerrell Freeman, who is at his best in pass coverage. Freeman’s impending free agency would have made Perryman all the more valuable.
30. Quinten Rollins, CB, Miami (Ohio)
(Original pick: Damarious Randall, CB/S, Arizona State)
Randall is off the board already, so the Packers can turn their hypothetical attention to Rollins, their choice at No. 62 a year ago. He was raw compared to Randall and was slowed by an injury in the preseason. Eventually, he earned a handful of starts, picking off a pair of passes and breaking up six others in just 300 or so snaps.
31. Hau’oli Kikaha, OLB, Washington
(Original pick: Stephone Anthony)
• BAUMGAERTNER: Ali Marpet's unprecedented rise to NFL
32. Ali Marpet, G, Hobart
(Original pick: Malcom Brown)
Missing out on Brown here might have pushed New England toward Shelton. Instead of that selection, they tab Marpet—another player who shaped up as a fit ahead of the 2015 draft. He still does, even though the Patriots did draft Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason in last year's fourth round. Marpet carried his Senior Bowl and combine momentum into the season, standing out as a top interior lineman.