OVERVIEW: The NFL is currently out of business as far as players in their union are concerned. But, the show must go on and perhaps no NFL draft is going to get as much attention as this year's will. Without free agency, not only are teams not focusing on signing outside veterans to fill their needs, their full focus is on the college talent they all need, but must depend on this year more than others. As a result, we may see potential franchise QBs go higher than they would under ordinary circumstances and buzz around players will impact their stock more than in previous years. With that in mind, there are significant changes in our mock draft. Here is what we're looking at in Version 3.0 – the first mock draft without free agency in almost two decades.
1. Carolina Panthers – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Had QB Andrew Luck come out as expected, 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 BCS Championship Game and should ride that momentum to the No. 1 pick.
2. Denver Broncos – Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
The Broncos re-signed Champ Bailey, which likely took away the immediate need to take a future star in CB Patrick Peterson with this pick. The Broncos have plenty of needs, but getting a pass rusher could be the top immediate need that can be met with the talent at this part of draft. Had there been a can't-miss offensive tackle in this year's draft, they likely would have gone in that direction, but Bowers' skill set make him a logical choice here.
3. Buffalo Bills – Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
If I was Buffalo, I wouldn't make this pick. Gabbert is going to be a solid pro, but he simply isn't worth the third pick in the draft, given the talent that is available. Buffalo needs help on defense, clearly with the third pick there are problems on both sides of the ball, and CB Patrick Peterson could help cure a lot of pass-rushing ills in a hurry. If either Fairley or Bowers is available, Buffalo could jump one of them. The team could also look at DT Marcell Dareus. The ideal scenario for them would be to swing a trade with Arizona or San Francisco or Tennessee to let them move up. If they do, they will take Gabbert. The sad reality is that, if Buffalo can't trade out for someone who wants Gabbert, they will take him. He has a lot of potential in a QB-driven league, but he's a push in my opinion at this pick.
4. Cincinnati Bengals – A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
A big-time playmaking wide receiver, 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 if it has any chance to compete with the Steelers and Ravens.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
If Gabbert is still on the board, the Cards will likely jump because they learned the hard way how much a quality QB meant to the franchise. Kurt Warner became a Hall of Famer because of how dismal his teams were after he left, not just how successful he was. But, if Gabbert is gone, Miller steps into the limelight. Joey Porter isn't going to be paid the nearly $6 million he is due this year, and both Porter and Clark Haggans are 34. Miller can be what Karlos Dansby was to this defense – the straw that stirs the drink. It's a pick that makes sense, but one has to wonder if Miller's inclusion in the players lawsuit against the NFL will impact his draft stock.
6. Cleveland Browns – Marcell 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 – Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Lucky Number Seven! Back in 2007, I was on board that, if I had the first pick in the draft, I would take Adrian Peterson. But collarbone questions dropped him from the No. 1 spot (used by the Raiders to take Superbust JaMarcus Russell) to No. 7. I smell the same thing happening this time around with another Peterson falling to No. 7. Based purely on positional dominance, I would have Peterson rated as the top prospect in the draft. But, with the need for other positions by those in front of the 49ers, the talent level Peterson brings forbids him from dropping any farther. This could be the most obvious pick of the round, much like Adrian Peterson was for the Vikings.
8. Tennessee Titans – Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
The Titans may be looking at Cam Newton with this pick, but a QB with red flags around him broke up the organization when there was considerable dissent from the locker room, coaching staff and ownership as to whether Vince Young was the right choice for the franchise. As a result, they may back off. But Quinn, who, if he's available when the Vikings pick, I believe would take, has his own question marks after being suspended for all of the 2010 season for violations of NCAA academic rules. That may not be enough for him to fall too far, but the Titans need to start rebuilding a defensive line that was once among the best in the league and now is closer to the worst.
9. Dallas Cowboys – Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
The Cowboys have significant issues on defense, so getting in the mix for the deep defensive end class could be a possibility, with a pass-rusher like J.J. Watt being given legitimate consideration. However, Amukamara is an aggressive cover corner that help cure a lot of the ills in the Cowboys defense by locking down a wide receiver for most of the game. His name has been linked to the Vikings, but don't count on that, because, if Dallas doesn't take him, Houston almost surely will at No. 11.
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 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 – J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
The Texans have invested a lot in improving their defensive front, so it might be a push to ask them to do it again. However, teams have game-planned Houston by constantly double-teaming Mario Williams because the Texans haven't been able to generate a pass rush from the other side. While I don't have Watt rated as a talent this high, his stock is on the rise and teams looking for a designated pass rusher who can make, at minimum, an immediate impact on third down, with the potential of being a starter early on.
12. Minnesota Vikings – Cameron Jordan, DE, Cal
If Cam Newton or Prince Amukamara are still here, they would get very strong consideration, but, with both of them gone, the Vikings – if they stay in this spot – will go for the safest pick. That would be the versatile Jordan, who is capable of playing defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker given the situation. In an era where character is a big issue, Jordan gets high marks for his character. The son of former Vikings ironman Steve Jordan, the younger Jordan has many of the same dominant physical attributes that his father has. Ideally, the Vikings, if they are interested in someone like QB Jake Locker or interior offensive lineman Mike Pouncey, could drop back a half dozen spots and still likely get either one, and help add a draft pick after losing their third-rounder in the Randy Moss debacle.
13. Detroit Lions – Anthony Costanzo, OT, Boston College
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. In a "down year" for offensive tackles, it doesn't hurt that Detroit will have the choice of any OT they covet.
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. This could be a dark horse pick for QB Ryan Mallett to come off the board. It's unclear if the organization has any faith in Chad Henne at this point, but replacing the RB questions may trump getting another QB to compete for a starting job.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
The Jaguars would love to see Cameron Jordan fall to this spot because Jordan credits much of his college success to Tyson Alualu, who was the Jags' first-round pick last year. Few teams have swung and missed more often on defensive ends than the Jags. Which makes this a need once again. Clayborn is 6-3, 290, and can be a bookend on the defensive line for years to come. The Jags have often taken the ‘tweener type of pass rushing DE that hasn't panned out over time. Claborn would be a departure (for the better) from that history.
17. New England (from Oakland) – Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri
The last thing anyone else in the league wants to see is New England with multiple draft picks in all the early rounds. The team has plenty of need areas, but always seem to find ways to fill them before they become glaring. Offensive line is going to get a lot of consideration and Colorado tackle Nate Solder may be in their line of sight with this pick. However, the flexibility Smith can bring as an outside linebacker and a situational pass--rushing defensive end could find him on the field a lot more than many rookies in the second half of the first round. The thing we've learned about the Patriots is to expect the unexpected. They could trade down, trade up or stay here with this pick and any of a half-dozen players would be possibilities here.
18. San Diego Chargers – Ryan Kerrigan, DE/OLB, Purdue
The Chargers seem destined, in my opinion, to grab a defensive end or a DE/OLB hybrid with this pick. They collapsed because of problems on the offensive line and in their pass rush. For a team looking for a hybrid, Kerrigan is one of the best choices. He can play OLB if needed. He can put his hand in the dirt if needed. It seems like a nice first-round draft marriage here.
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 – Justin Houston, OLB/DE, Georgia
The Bucs won 10 games last year despite having one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. They need to create more sack opportunities and Houston is an athletic player with a strong upper body that can be used as an outside linebacker on first and second down and be a pass-rush specialist on third downs. The Bucs have a lot of needs for a team that had double-digit wins last year, but the biggest immediate need is to improve the physicality and production of the defensive front. They may opt for a more pure DE, but Houston is a value pick because of his versatility and ability to step in immediately and make a contribution.
21. Kansas City Chiefs – Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
I can see this pick going one of two ways – either with an active outside linebacker like Ayers or an offensive tackle if a player they covet falls to this spot. The bread and butter of the offense is currently its running game, but they have a lot of pieces in place on offense. Defense is a different story. Ayers could give the Chiefs a playmaker in the middle of the defense that could provide the most immediate help in their quest to repeat as division champs.
22. Indianapolis Colts – Nate Solder, OT, Wisconsin
The question here likely isn't if a lineman is going to get taken, it's whether it will be an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman. The Colts could well look at a run-stuffing tackle like Corey Liuget or Stephen Paea, but naming Peyton Manning as their franchise player was the most obvious franchise tag ever dropped. He is the franchise and needs better protecting than he has received. Given how much money is tied up in a handful of star players, few teams use the draft and undrafted free agents as an integral part of their team as much as the Colts. It's time to invest in the future of protecting Manning and Carimi is the tackle that can help be one bookend moving forward.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
Offensive line could be the trump card here, since the Eagles appear willing and able to invest in Michael Vick as their QB in the long-term. If that's the case, protecting him will become Priority One. However, there are other needs on this team and one of the most glaring is in the secondary. The Eagles were viewed as one of the league's top teams until December, when the secondary not only got exposed, but burned. Smith would provide a player who could immediately compete for a starting spot and give the back end of the defense enough firepower for the blitz-happy Eagles to return to their former glory.
24. New Orleans Saints – Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
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. With the other teams in the division built more to run the ball than pass the ball, being able to have an inside presence that can clog the interior running lanes and stop what the Falcons, Panthers and Bucs like to do most would make this pick a natural that could pay off big in the long run.
25. Seattle Seahawks – Jake Locker, QB, Washington
I actually hate that I'm making this pick here, but, as anyone who follows the draft knows, all you need is one team to like a player and he comes off the board much higher than expected – Troy Williamson and Darius Heyward-Bey come immediately to mind However, teams can overcome a bust wide receiver in the top 10 picks. A quarterback misstep can set a franchise back for years. If I was making the call, it would be Ryan Mallett. But Pete Carroll knows Locker inside and out – he beat USC twice (back when that meant something). The almighty dollar factors in as well. With a built-in fan base of Huskies fans in Washington, he could be mentored for a year or so by Matt Hasselbeck, who will likely be back for a short-term final tour of duty. Too many things point to jersey sales and personal history with Carroll.
26. Baltimore Ravens – Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
Few teams have had more consistent long-term draft success than the Ravens, who find talent and players that fit their system. The defense has been the calling card and I could envision them reaching slightly for Miami CB Brandon Harris (they've done pretty well with players from "The U" – including Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.) The defense is aging at some key spots, but the Ravens are transitioning into a team that win games with offense, with Ray Rice leading the way on the ground and Joe Flacco maturing as a deep-threat QB. The team has questions at the tackle spot, where Jared Gaither is a free agent and there is a growing feeling the Michael Oher would be best suited to play right tackle. Carimi is a big mauler who was a durable four-year starter in the Big Ten. He fits the M.O. of what the Ravens have done in previous drafts – taking a talented player who is a known college commodity and fit him in the puzzle.
27. Atlanta Falcons – Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida
It can be argued that defense is what led to the Falcons demise as the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed, but it can't be discounted that no NFC team was better in the regular season. While defensive line remains a possibility, considering how hard the teams in front of them have hammered the prospects on the defensive front, the Falcons look to find a player that can step in immediately and contribute. Given their reliance on the running game to control the clock and his brother Maurkice paving the way with a standout rookie season with the Steelers, Mike is the beneficiary and comes to a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations that just got kicked up a notch.
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. Nothing is guaranteed with the Patriots, so they may trade this pick for a first-rounder next year and, given that the teams that we project passing on quarterback in the first round that need one (Buffalo, Tennessee and the Vikings), a trade is always a possibility here.
29. Chicago Bears – Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
The Bears haven't had a first-round pick the last two seasons thanks to the trade for Jay Cutler. What they need to do with this pick is start building a foundation around Cutler to make their investment pay off. Chris Williams was supposed to be the left tackle of the future, but he was moved to guard last year and, whether Sherrod would compete with Frank Omilaye or be worked into the lineup, he would be a big building block for the future, especially on an O-line needing an infusion of youth for the future.
30. New York Jets – Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor
With questions remaining at wide receiver, that could be a possibility. But the Jets have amassed a dominating defense despite not having a pure nose tackle in the middle to take care of business. Taylor is a wide body that could be driven by Rex Ryan to make an immediate impact. For a team looking for a pure nose tackle, he's the best at that position in the draft, which is always nice to find when you're picking this late.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – Danny Watkins, G, Baylor
No position has been a bigger problem for the Steelers than guard. Chris Kemoeatu is barely adequate at left guard and starting right guard Trai Essex was benched during the season for undrafted rookie Ramon Foster. Watkins could step in as an immediate starter and, along with last year's first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey, give the Steelers a pair of young studs in the middle of the O-line that will be there for years to come. Given the importance of the running game of Rashard Mendenhall to control the clock and protecting Ben Roethlisberger, this is a pick that could pay immediate dividends for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance.
32. Green Bay Packers – Bruce Carter, OLB, North Carolina
Nobody would be happier than the Packers to see one of the offensive linemen we project to go in the previous six picks – Camiri, Pouncey, Sherrod or Watkins – remain on the board. If any of them remain, the Packers could jump on them. Bryan Bulaga was the first-round pick a year ago and took over for veteran Mark Tauscher early on. It now appears that Tauscher is likely done for his career and Clifton isn't too far behind. In the middle, Darryn Colledge has been a huge disappointment at guard, so if any of the O-line candidates we have coming off the board in popcorn-like fashion in front of the Packers will influence them if one remains. However, the drop-off is pretty severe at this point, so the Packers need to take the best athlete to fill a need. The team struck gold with OLB Clay Matthews, but the other OLB spot in Dom Capers' 3-4 was a combo platter of Erik Walden, Frank Zombo and Brad Jones. Carter is one of the most consistent linebackers available in the draft and would provide an immediate impact for a Packers defense wearing the bull's eye in 2011.
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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