To track four months of NFL mock drafts is, like Alice in Wonderland, to fall through a rabbit hole into a land of make-believe. There is little to no real information involved, only guesses that, over time, can evolve significantly. Predictions made in January often disappear gradually from the collective consciousness like the Cheshire Cat.
For illustration, consider the weight of public opinion – and how it has changed– regarding what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will do with the fifth-overall pick in the rapidly-approaching 2019 NFL Draft. I have been tracking mock drafts since the early days of January and there has been a clear evolution of what analysts are expecting from the Buccaneers. Let's take a closer look at the details of that evolution.
Actually, let's take a look at the predictive work of one particular draft expert with significant name recognition: ESPN's Mel Kiper. Kiper has posted three mock drafts since mid-January (which are not linked here as they are behind a subscription wall) and made the following picks for the Buccaneers at number five:
· January 17: Alabama T Jonah Williams
· February 18: Mississippi State DE Montez Sweat
· April 3: LSU LB Devin White
It's worth noting that Kiper was very early on the Sweat hype train, making that prediction in mid-February even though it wouldn't become a common choice in the mock-verse until almost a month later. The key takeaway in the progression of these picks, however, is how they changed from offense to defense and from the front line back to the next level of defense. That is a clear trend when one examines a wide range of mock drafts.
I noted the results of 140 mock drafts between January 3 and April 5. That is most definitely not all of the mock drafts that are out there. I put some limits on my search, only including efforts that were attributed to a specific analyst rather than a site as a whole and sticking mostly to the more recognizable national sites. I did include multiple mocks from different analysts on the same site; NFL.com and CBSSports.com, for instance, have had quite a few experts weigh in on the issue. As with Kiper, I treated each new version of an analyst's mock draft as a separate entry in the list. That is the point, after all – how have opinions changed over the months.
The same trend displayed by Kiper can be seen if we break the mocks down by month. Grouping all defensive linemen/edge-rushers together and all defensive backs together, here is how the picks broke down from month to month:
January (17 total mock drafts)
· 5 offensive tackles (29.4%)
· 5 defensive backs (29.4%)
· 4 defensive linemen (23.5%)
· 2 linebackers (11.8%)
· 1 running back (5.9%)
February (50 total mock drafts)
· 16 defensive linemen (32.0%)
· 15 defensive backs (30.0%)
· 12 offensive linemen (24.0%)
· 4 running backs (8.0%)
· 3 linebackers (6.0%)
March (57 total mock drafts)
· 28 defensive linemen (49.1%)
· 21 linebackers (36.8%)
· 7 defensive backs (12.3%)
· 1 wide receiver (1.8%)
April (16 total mock drafts)
· 9 linebackers (56.3%)
· 6 defensive linemen (37.5%)
· 1 defensive back (6.3%)
The sample sizes are obviously a little smaller for the first and last months, but the trend is clear. From March on, only one mock draft has paired the Buccaneers with an offensive player, and it wasn't even an offensive lineman. Rather, it was the biggest outlier in this entire collection of mocks, with Danny Kelly of The Ringer giving the Bucs Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf on March 15. Notably, Kelly posted a new version on March 1 and this time went with Sweat for Tampa Bay.
(Again, this is not to say that you couldn't find a mock draft from April out there that has the Bucs taking an offensive lineman. You probably could. But I didn't avoid any such mocks on purpose; I simply followed my rules and never came across one.)
Through the first two months, you were almost as likely to see the Buccaneers paired with Jonah Williams or Florida tackle Jawaan Taylor as you were to see them matched with Sweat or Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver. That all changed in March.
Why? The NFL Scouting Combine that bridged February into March likely had something to do with it. This was already considered a very deep draft for defensive linemen, but the outstanding performances in Indianapolis by the likes of Sweat and Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams only served to emphasize that fact. Mock drafts in general have seen the defensive linemen rise up the board over the past five or six weeks; it's a more general trend than specific to the Buccaneers.
In addition, the Buccaneers re-signed left tackle Donovan Smith and picked up their 2019 option on right tackle Demar Dotson in early March, seemingly setting the O-Line lineup (except at right guard) for the upcoming season.
Also of note is that the idea of the Buccaneers taking a running back was taken seriously enough to give the team Alabama's Josh Jacobs in five different drafts in January and February. That notion, too, has disappeared from the group's thinking. Jacobs didn't work out at the Combine and he didn't blow scouts away with his 40-yard dash time at Alabama's two Pro Days, but this trend probably had little to do with the prospect himself. Tampa Bay Head Coach Bruce Arians praised incumbent back Peyton Barber at the Combine and the running back position, in general, has slid down the board as these mock drafts have evolved.
View photos of Daniel Jeremiah's top 50 prospects of the 2019 NFL Draft.
One very popular pick for the Buccaneers in the early going was LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, who was quickly anointed the best cornerback in this year's class (there has been some dissension since but that notion has essentially held). However, after 30% of mock drafters went with Williams or another defensive back in February, that number dropped to 12.3% in March, and so far only one analyst has given the Bucs a defensive back in the 16 mocks of April. That was actually the very last one on our list, by NJ.com's Ryan Dunleavy, and that was only made after Dunleavy had the Bucs trading back with the Dolphins to pick number 13.
By the way, of the 140 mocks I tracked, 15 had the Bucs trading down and none had them trading up. One had Tampa Bay moving back just to number eight with the Lions; two each had the deal worked out with Denver at number 10 and Cincinnati at number 11. The trade back to Miami happened in three drafts and two others saw the Bucs dropping all the way to number 15, where Washington currently sits. The most creative mocker was The Draft Wire's Luke Easterling, who on February 27 put up a mock draft that had the Bucs trading down twiceand end up at number 13. And yes, all those deals were made by teams seeking quarterbacks.
Finally, the weight of mock opinion has shifted in the home stretch to linebacker, where the Bucs are frequently paired up with LSU's Devin White at the fifth spot. It took a little while for that idea to pick up steam, as it is found in only five of the drafts we tracked through the first two months. However, it became a very common pick in March and has now taken over as the favorite in April. The reason is painfully obvious: starting linebacker Kwon Alexander departed for San Francisco and a very lucrative deal when free agency began in mid-March.
Most notably, the collective mock draft consciousness has completely abandoned the idea that the Buccaneers will use their first-round pick on offense. Other than the Metcalf outlier, every draft in the past two months has paired Tampa Bay with a defensive player, and that's true even when Tampa Bay trades down first.
White isn't the only linebacker that analysts have paired with the Buccaneers, though he makes up the steep majority of predictions at that position. Three other mock drafters have given Tampa Bay Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, two after a trade down. So far Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports is the only mock drafter to have the Bucs take Bush at the fifth pick, which he posted on April 1. Notably, White had already been chosen by Oakland with the previous pick.
Another trend of note is that the support for the idea of the Bucs taking Sweat has picked up steam as the real draft has drawn closer. As I alluded to earlier, Kiper was the only analyst among the drafts we included who paired Sweat with Tampa Bay prior to the Combine. The Mississippi State edge rusher then blew the doors off Lucas Oil Stadium, improving his stock among the many intriguing linemen in this class. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah then put Sweat at number five in his mock on March 5 and others followed suit. Beginning with Jeremiah's mock, Sweat has been the second-most common player given to the Buccaneers after White, and the most common edge rusher.
Tampa Bay has also increasingly got its hands on Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen as the draft has drawn closer. The only mock drafter to put Allen at the fifth pick prior to the Combine was one we've mentioned previously, The Ringer's Danny Kelly, who did so in his February 18 version. Since the Combine, that prediction has been made seven more times, most recently by CBS Sports' Tom Fornelli on April 2.
In this case, the turning point probably isn't the Combine, or at least not solely the Combine. And it also has nothing to do with Allen's performance in Indianapolis. Rather, it would be the February 11 declaration by Kyler Murray that he was going to commit himself to playing football rather than baseball, in which the Oakland A's had already made him a first-round pick. Murray then measured well enough at the Combine to ease some concerns about his size for the quarterback position, and Arizona Cardinals representatives made comments that seemed non-committal about their current quarterback situation, even after taking Josh Rosen 10th overall a year ago.
As such, Murray has become the overwhelmingly popular opinion for the Cardinals at the first-overall pick, which necessarily pushes the top defensive players down a spot. Most of the mock drafts that have Allen going to the Buccaneers do so by also having another team trade into the top five to take a second quarterback.
If all of this has you as confused as the March Hare, don't worry. In the end, it is all a meaningless if wildly entertaining exercise. Only the Arizona Cardinals know for sure who they're going to end up with on the evening of April 25…and even they may not have made up their minds yet. But if the collective mock draft consciousness proves to have any predictive value at all for the Buccaneers, it will mean the team will almost certainly add to their defense on that Thursday night, with the two top possibilities being LSU linebacker Devin White and Mississippi State edge-rusher Montez Sweat.