D-Led’s final NFL mock draft: Falcons take first defender off the board

UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu (15) pressures South Alabama quarterback Carter Bradley (2) during the third quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Pasadena, California. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu (15) pressures South Alabama quarterback Carter Bradley (2) during the third quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Pasadena, California. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

FLOWERY BRANCH — The NFL draft is almost here, with the festivities set to kick off Thursday in Detroit.

So, that means it’s time to put forth our final mock draft.

We finally jump LSU’s Jayden Daniels over North Carolina’s Drake Maye and put the dazzling Heisman Trophy winner into the No. 2 slot behind USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

We figured out a top-10 spot for former Georgia tight end Brock Bowers.

We also figured out that the Falcons will take a leap on UCLA defensive end Laiatu Latu’s medical report and select him with the eighth overall pick.

New Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake was the head coach at Washington and announced Latu’s medical retirement before the start of the 2021 spring practice. The school’s doctors wouldn’t clear him because of a neck injury.

He was cleared by the doctors at UCLA in 2022. He had 10.5 sacks in 2022 and 13 sacks in 2023. A native of Sacramento, California, Latu became the first winner of both the Lombardi Award and the Ted Hendricks Award.

The Falcons met with Latu at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“I wish I was able to see him with the Falcons. He wasn’t there (during the interview), but he’s such a great coach,” Latu said of Lake. “He knows how to work the back end well and let the front seven eat. He’s such a great coach. I was hoping I’d get to see him, but you know, I’ll see him down the road.”

Latu sustained a neck injury during practice and missed the four-game COVID-19 season in 2020. He had cervical neck-fusion surgery. After Latu met with five specialists, it was determined that it was no longer safe for him to play football because of the potential for paralysis.

Latu was asked if teams were inquiring about his medical situation at the combine.

“No teams have talked about any concern,” Latu said. “Most teams have talked about pass rushing and going through certain clips. Never was a concern for them.”

Those conversations likely were had with teams and their medical doctors.

Latu said it was tough being retired.

“I mean, every time I was told I probably wouldn’t be able to play football again,” Latu said. “It wasn’t a low point, I kind of just took it for what it was, and it was hard not being able to play football, the sport that I love since the age of 6. ... God has a plan, and I made it this far.”

Noted back and neck surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins cleared Latu to play after a battery of tests. Washington still wouldn’t clear him, and he transferred to UCLA in January 2022.

“He’s had guys with similar stuff, too, like Danielle Hunter and Peyton Manning, and really he just told me that I would be able to play football,” Latu said.

So, right before the Falcons take Latu, the Titans will take Bowers as they try to surround quarterback Will Levis with weapons.

“My dark horse (for Tennessee) is Brock Bowers, if he’s available,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “I think he’s going to go over the tackle for the Titans. I think that’s a piece that they need badly, and I’m a huge fan of Brock Bowers.”

Overall, we have six quarterbacks going in the first round.

After Williams, Daniels and Maye, we have Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy going 11th to the Vikings, Oregon’s Bo Nix to the Broncos at No. 12 and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. at No. 13 to the Raiders.

“It’s so tricky when you go back over it,” SiriusXM NFL radio analyst Mark Dominik said. “Obviously, 2020 was ridiculous right. With (Joe) Burrow, Tua (Tagovailoa), Justin (Herbert), (Jordan) Love and (Jalen) Hurts. That’s as good as it gets almost when you say five-for-five.”

But the following draft, quarterbacks were overdrafted.

“It was (Trevor) Lawrence, (Zach) Wilson, (Trey) Lance, (Justin) Fields and Mac Jones,” said Dominik, the former Bucs general manager and front-office executive. “This class feels good. ... Last year, I talked about the 2024 class, that it had the chance to be a special class. I still think it does.”

In three years, we’ll be able to look back and see which teams won the 2024 draft.

“As we watch these guys unfold in the National Football League, sometimes it’s the guy who gets picked a little bit later,” Dominik said. “It’s the pick 10 instead of pick two, Patrick Mahomes instead of Mitchell Trubisky, who becomes the better player? Only time will tell.”

South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, Tulane’s Michael Pratt, Kentucky’s Devin Leary and Tennessee’s Joe Milton will attract interest in the late rounds.

“I think there is a good quality and quantity in this class that I think it’s more towards that 2020 possibility than it is 2021,” Dominik said.

Falcons get their edge rusher, but he won’t be from Alabama.

Here’s a look at the first round of the final mock draft:

1. Chicago Bears (via Carolina Panthers): Caleb Williams, QB, USC. The Bears traded Justin Fields to the Steelers to clear the quarterback meeting room for Williams. Here are the Bears’ passing leaders since 2009: Fields (2021-22), Mitchell Trubisky (2017-20), Matt Barkley (2018) and Jay Cutler (2009-15). Falcons director of player personnel Ryan Pace was the GM when they took Trubisky over Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

2. Washington Commanders: Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU. He leaped over Maye since the last mock because of his playmaking ability when he’s on the move.

3. New England Patriots: Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina. The Patriots have moved on from Mac Jones and need a signal-caller to build around.

4. Arizona Cardinals: Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State. The Cardinals get a major weapon for quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Desmond Ridder.

5. Los Angeles Chargers: Rome Odunze, WR, Washington. The Chargers must replace Keenan Allen after trading him to Chicago. Odunze was magical last season for the Huskies.

6. New York Giants: Malik Nabers, WR, LSU. The Giants need to surround quarterback Daniel Jones with playmakers after letting running back Saquon Barkley leave in free agency.

7. Tennessee Titans: Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia. “He’s (6-foot-3 and 243 pounds) and he’s got 9¾ (inch) hands,” SiriusXM NFL radio analyst Bill Polian said. “He didn’t do anything at the combine. In our system in Indianapolis, we’d subtract five pounds from him, assuming that he just beefed up for the combine. We’d make him 238. Round it off, call it 240. Those are Dallas Clark numbers. He’s a Dallas Clark-type player.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The quarterback is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft in April.

8. Falcons: Laiatu Latu, DE, UCLA. The Falcons clearly would be comfortable with his medical reports. Some teams have him as the best defender and pass rusher in the draft.

9. Chicago Bears: Joe Alt, OT, Notre Dame. The Bears need to fix the offensive line to give Williams a chance to be successful.

10. New York Jets: Taliese Fuaga, OT, Oregon State. The Jets have to keep Aaron Rodgers protected.

11. Minnesota Vikings: J.J. McCarthy, QB, Minnesota. The Vikings need to replace Kirk Cousins, who signed with the Falcons in free agency.

12. Denver Broncos: Bo Nix, QB, Oregon. Since Mock 1.0, the Broncos released Russell Wilson and need a quarterback. If Sean Payton likes Jarrett Stidham, he’ll love Bo Nix.

13. Las Vegas Raiders: Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington. He’s a perfect for the Raiders to bring back their old-style of play and their deep passing attack.

14. New Orleans Saints: Dallas Turner, OLB, Alabama. Turner could come back to terrorize the Falcons for passing on him.

15. Indianapolis Colts: Quinyon Mitchell, CB, Toledo. He has moved ahead of Alabama’s Terrion Arnold and Clemson’s Nate Wiggins as the top cornerback in the draft. He lifted 225 pounds 20 times on the bench press, which was tops among the cornerbacks at the combine.

16. Seattle Seahawks: Byron Murphy II, DT, Texas. New coach Mike Macdonald believes in being stout up the middle first. Murphy is 6-0.5 and 297 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.87 seconds.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Heisman Trophy winner from LSU will be one of the top quarterbacks available in April.

17. Jacksonville Jaguars: Terrion Arnold, CB, Alabama. Plays much faster than he ran at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash). He can play inside or outside for the Jags.

18. Cincinnati Bengals: Amarius Mims, OT, Georgia. The Bengals need to fortify their offensive line.

19. Los Angeles Rams: Nate Wiggins, CB, Clemson. The former Westlake High standout is considered the top cover corner in the draft by some.

20. Pittsburgh Steelers: Olumuyiwa Fashanu, OT, Penn State. New offensive coordinator Arthur Smith gets a tackle to help power the run game.

21. Miami Dolphins: Jared Verse, DE, Florida State. The Dolphins have been hit hard by free agency.

22. Philadelphia Eagles: Jer’Zhan Newton, DT, Illinois. With the retirement of Fletcher Cox, the Eagles need some power up front.

23. Minnesota Vikings (via Houston from Cleveland Browns): Cooper DeJean, CB, Iowa. First-team Associated Press All-American and the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year. He had seven career interceptions.

24. Dallas Cowboys: Jackson Powers-Johnson, C, Oregon. He can anchor the offensive line for the next decade. They can find a tackle later.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Former Westlake star Nate Wiggins, who played collegiately at Clemson and is one of the top-rated cornerbacks in the 2024 NFL draft, talks about his home team.

25. Green Bay Packers: Tyler Guyton, OT, Oklahoma. The Packers released tackle David Bakhtiari after 11 years of service.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Chop Robinson, DE, Penn State. He’s quick off the ball and fits coach Todd Bowles’ defense.

27. Arizona Cardinals (via Houston Texans): Troy Fautanu, OT, Washington. The Cardinals must solidify the line up front.

28. Buffalo Bills: Brian Thomas Jr., WR, LSU. The Bills parted ways with the temperamental Stefon Diggs in a trade with the Texans.

29. Detroit Lions: Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama. The Lions have a hole at cornerback after cutting Cam Sutton, who was involved in a domestic-violence case.

30. Baltimore Ravens: Keon Coleman, WR, Florida State. At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Coleman would provide a big target for quarterback Lamar Jackson.

31. San Francisco 49ers: Darius Robinson, DE, Missouri. The 49ers are looking for defensive line help after not re-signing Chase Young.

32. Kansas City Chiefs: Adonai Mitchell, WR, Texas. The Chiefs needed receiver help before Rashee Rice was arrested and charged with speeding at 119 mph and crashing.

Credit: Kaylee Mansell

The AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter and DawgNation's Mike Griffith report on the highlights of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week.

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