OVERVIEW: The first incarnation of our mock draft prior to the Senior Bowl has us wondering just how this draft will be conducted. With NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith declaring war on behalf of the players, it seems clear that the free agent period won't come before the draft, which may force more teams to forsake the "best athlete available" mantra in favor of going after players that can fill more immediate needs. There is going to be a lot of interest in quarterbacks, but defensive line is likely to dominate the first round, with 10 or more D-linemen being taken in the top 32 picks. While there will be a lot of factors, like the Senior Bowl week and the NFL Scouting Combine, that will affect future versions of our mock draft, but these are our picks and we're sticking with them … for now.
1. Carolina Panthers – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Had QB Andrew Luck, this would have been a no-brainer. As it is, it would appear there are only two choices – Fairley or DE Da'Quan Bowers. The Panthers need a lot of help up front and losing Julius Peppers last offseason was a death blow to the defense. Fairley showed how dominant he could be in the BSC Championship Game and should ride that momentum to the No. 1 pick.
2. Denver Broncos – Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
The Broncos secondary got torched often last year and their primary star, Champ Bailey, isn't getting any younger. If Fairley makes it past Carolina, he could be an option, as would Bowers, since the Broncos need defensive end help as well. Peterson is big at 6-1 and has the speed to take a top receiver down the field. It's hard to call the second pick of the draft a toss-up, but the Broncos aren't a lock for anything.
3. Buffalo Bills – Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
This will be the answer to the first QB question, since Blaine Gabbert could come off the board here, but our feeling is that the depth at QB as it currently stands could trump taking what would likely be a slight reach to take Gabbert. The Bills need defensive playmakers and Bowers would be an immediate upgrade in that regard.
4. Cincinnati Bengals – A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
Green is a big-time playmaking wide receiver, and the Bengals aren't likely to bring both Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens back next year. A lot of teams balk at taking a wide receiver this high, but he has the size and speed to become an impact player earlier than most and would give the Bengals another weapon for an offense that needs to improve.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
The Cardinals learned the hard way how important Kurt Warner was to the team. They got rid of Matt Leinart and have all but abandoned Derek Anderson. There's talk they will be in the running for Donovan McNabb, but, they won't know what their chances are in that regard on draft day. That may force their hand – as well as other teams (see below) when it comes to making the tough call on grabbing a quarterback. He's far from a lock to be a superstar in the NFL, but the Cardinals know the importance of having a difference-maker at QB. Versatile DL Marcel Dareus is also a possibility.
6. Cleveland Browns – Marcel Dareus, DT/DE, Alabama
The Browns have a lot of needs, but teams always need to build from the lines. There are several directions they can go here, including A.J. Green if he is still available, but Dareus is a fast-rising talent who can play outside in a 3-4 or inside in a 4-3 and, depending on the system, can be molded into a fit in just about any defensive scheme, which isn't easy.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
Perhaps no player other than Cam Newton will receive more varied opinions than Quinn. He missed the 2010 season due to NCAA violations and there will be teams that will severely downgrade him on their draft boards. However, he is a relentless pass rusher whose talent may outweigh the red flags that are next to his name on every G.M.'s evaluation of him.
8. Tennessee Titans – Jake Locker, QB, Washington
There may be a tendency to take Cam Newton, but, given the problems the Titans had with Vince Young that have led to his ouster from the team, I find that to be unlikely here. Once bitten, twice shy. That being said, the Titans main area of need is at QB. He is incredibly inconsistent and will need a lot of work with whoever drafts him, but the Titans need may push this pick.
9. Dallas Cowboys – Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
The Cowboys secondary got lit up too often last season and, at a minimum, depth is a concern, the team has addressed offense early in the draft the last few years and need to pay more attention to the defensive side. If he blows up at the Combine, the Fresh Prince of Nebraska could vault up higher than where we have him now.
10. Washington Redskins – Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
There is no coach more volatile and no owner more willing to throw away money than the combo platter of Mike Shanahan and Daniel Snyder. With the investigations each NFL team conducts, there will be teams (from what we've been told will hopefully include the Vikings) that believe he will be a combustible player that will be more trouble than he's worth. With Larry and Moe already in place, Curly would seem to be the natural trifecta.
11. Houston Texans – Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
The Texans have a couple of defensive studs in Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, but still have one of the most brutal defenses in the league. With the offense seemingly set to score 30 points a game, they need players on defense that will make 30 points stand up for a win. He has the ability to be an undersized pass-rushing DE, but the speed and agility to excel at the OLB position at the next level.
12. Minnesota Vikings – Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
To be honest, I would like to see the Vikings take a shot somewhere else – offensive lineman Mike Pouncey, Nate Solder or Anthony Costanzo, WR Julio Jones or Amukamara if he slips down to them. However, the Vikings need to make a commitment to the quarterback position. Under ideal circumstances, they would have a chance to sign a veteran or swing a trade for a player like Donovan McNabb or Vince Young and grab a quarterback in the second round, where a handful more QBs are likely to go. There are going to be teams that will resist the temptation to reach for a quarterback and Mallet is the ultimate reach. Some scouts don't even have him as a first-round prospect, while others have him as a top-10 prospect – primarily because he has a wealth of experience in a pro-style offense. The combination of a short-term veteran presence along with Joe Webb and a solid prospect like Mallett could be the recipe the Vikings offense will need to move forward with more questions than answers at the QB position.
13. Detroit Lions – Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
The Lions have invested in offense in the first round as much as any team in the league, so given the wealth of defensive talent available, there will be a clamor to give Ndamukong Suh some help. However, given the investment in Matthew Stafford, getting a long-term bodyguard for him may trump defensive needs in the first round for a Lions team picking later than it has in years.
14. St. Louis Rams – Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
There is perhaps no more logical marriage of player and team than Jones and the Rams. It seems impossible that A.J. Green will fall this far and the Rams need to bring in a young wide receiver that can become Sam Bradford's go-to receiver in the coming years. The Rams have a collection of Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receivers on their roster but need someone who can stretch the field and make the big plays that Rams fans got spoiled by with Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
15. Miami Dolphins – Mark Ingram, RB, Oklahoma
There may only be one or two running backs taken in the first round, which is good news for Miami. Both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are free agents and, given the uncertainty of free agency and the commitment to running the ball, getting a young runner is a necessity, much less a Heisman Trophy-winning RB.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – Adrian Clayborn, DE/DT, Iowa
If a quarterback – Locker, Newton or Mallett – remains on the board, this pick will get switched. It seems like the Jaguars are always drafting DEs early in the draft and their track record is spotty at best. Clayborn has the speed to play on the outside and the strength to play inside on passing downs, which makes him a valuable commodity – and less likely to be another D-line Jags bust.
17. New England Patriots (from Oakland) – Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
The last thing the Patriots need is another year with two first-round draft picks (and many more multiples down the road). There are so many options they have – offensive line, running back or wide receiver could be options if a player they covet is available – so they are as likely as any team to take the best athlete. Ayers is a standout linebacker who can be a pass-rushing DE on third downs, giving the Pats another versatile, athletic playmaker.
18. San Diego Chargers – Cameron Jordan, DE, California
The Chargers seem destined, in my opinion, to grab a defensive end or a DE/OLB hybrid with this pick. At 6-4, 282, Jordan is a pass-rushing presence that could electrify the Chargers defense and put them back on track to the playoffs.
19. New York Giants – Tyron Smith, OT, USC
The Giants have seen playoff-caliber teams broken up because of injuries and the lack of depth on the offensive line. The team has the component parts on both sides of the ball to be effective, but adding a young O-lineman to start the process of rebuilding a glaring weakness is key with this pick.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
The Bucs hung around the playoff picture before a late-season collapse and one of the missing ingredients was a third-down pass rusher. Smith can provide that, whether being pushed into the starting lineup or being used in a part-time capacity. With the blue chip D-line prospects getting plucked, the Bucs jump in on the run.
21. Kansas City Chiefs – Anthony Costanzo, OT, Boston College
For a player that will be on the board this long, he is getting a lot of talk associating him with other teams throughout the second half of the first round. The Chiefs have a dynamic running game despite having little depth and marginal top-end talent on the O-line. They know where their bread is buttered and Costanzo looks like a good fit in keeping the run game strong.
22. Indianapolis Colts – Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
This pick should come down to a 300-plus-pounder, whether it's an offensive lineman like Costanzo or Mike Pouncey or a run-stopping defensive tackle like Paea. The Colts have a dominating outside pass rush from Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but lack a dominant inside presence. Paea is the best pure interior D-lineman in the draft.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – Mike Pouncey, G/C, Florida
The Eagles are likely to commit to Michael Vick, which means they will need to upgrade their offensive line with players capable of holding their blocks and shooting out to make blocks when Vick improvises. Pouncey will likely benefit from the performance of his brother, Maurkice, who was selected to the Pro Bowl as a Steelers rookie.
24. New Orleans Saints – J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
The Saints defense didn't make as many plays in 2010 as it did in the Super Bowl season of 2009. They need upgrades at linebacker and safety as well, which could shift this pick, but it seems clear that defense will likely be the priority in the first round.
25. Seattle Seahawks – Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
The downward slide of Seattle's franchise began when Steve Hutchinson left via free agency and got worse when Walter Jones retired. With Russell Okung at left tackle, Camiri could give the Seahawks bookend tackles to provide the cornerstones for the rebuilding process.
26. Baltimore Ravens – Brandon Harris, CB, Miami
Ozzie Newsome has a knack for drafting players that fit in the Ravens system and make an immediate impact. His track record is as good as any G.M. in the league. Harris is an outstanding athlete that can make plays. Given their track record with players from "The U" (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Willis McGahee, Tavares Gooden, etc.), Harris seems like a glove fit.
27. Atlanta Falcons – Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
The Falcons don't make a lot of mistakes and have talent across the board on offense. The biggest need is to create a more consistent pass rush and adding a young pass rusher is a must. Kerrigan was among the best in terms of sacks and tackles for a loss last year and would bring an immediate upgrade.
28. New England Patriots – Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois
The Patriots always seek out players with versatility and the ability to play a role and do it extremely well. They don't have a history of taking running backs in the first round, but Leshoure has the ability as a runner and receiver and could fit the concept of the Patriots and their position flexibility penchant.
29. New York Jets – Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State
Wide receiver is clearly a possibility given the free-agent status of Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Brad Smith, but the Jets are a team that is going to get over the championship game hump by keeping defense the top priority. Jason Taylor is about at the end of the line and getting a pass-rushing replacement seems like a logical direction for this pick.
30. Chicago Bears – Ben Ijalana, OT/G, Villanova
The Bears have some needs, but keeping Jay Cutler from getting pounded is a top priority. Chicago is aging up front and Ijalana could compete for a guard spot initially and be groomed as the eventual replacement to aging center Olin Kreutz.
31. Green Bay Packers – Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
The Packers re-signed aging tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher last year and squeezed time out of them as they fight the clock. Sherrod could come in and compete for playing time immediately and be worked into action as the eventual replacement for Clifton, who played at a high level in 2010 but knows his days are numbered.
32. Pittsburgh Steelers – Justin Houston, DE, Georgia
The Steelers have a decent defense, but injuries up front are always a concern, given their penchant for winning games with a stout defense. Houston may not be an immediate starter, but would provide depth and push for a starting job sooner than later.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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