OVERVIEW: As we get closer to the draft, we see the stock of players rising and falling. Those on the rise include QBs Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton, both of whom are being looked upon as potential picks for the Carolina Panthers at No. 1 overall. The fallers include the deep defensive end class. With so many talented players – 10 or more could become immediate starters in one of the deepest positional draft classes in years – teams with a need may be more willing to let defensive ends slide in the first round with the hope that only five or six come off the board in the first round. The feeding frenzy on QB and defensive line early, in incarnation 4.0 of our mock draft, has two players that I would take with the first two picks – LB Von Miller and CB Patrick Peterson – fall to the bottom half of the top 10, with San Francisco and Dallas ending up very happy. As buzz continues to grow, the picks will likely change, but, as it stands now, the early big winners may well be the defensive tackle class, not QB or DE.
1. Carolina Panthers – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
There is growing sentiment that the Panthers will take Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert or Aurburn's Cam Newton here. I say, "Not so fast, my friend." The Panthers didn't have a first-round pick last year, and when they finally did make a selection they took QB Jimmy Clausen. Had Andrew Luck of Stanford come out, I believe the Panthers would have jumped on him because he is that talented. As it stands, it's hard to imagine the team using its top pick two years in a row on a quarterback that will need time to develop. As a result, it seems the best pick for the organization is in a run-stuffing defensive tackle or pass-rushing defensive end. DE Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson makes sense, but I believe the Panthers will start the trend of letting the talented DE class slide a little bit – making their choice come down to Fairley or Alabama DT Marcell Dareus. Fairley's monster 2010 championship season – punctuated by a huge night in the BSC Championship Game – may be enough to tip the scale in his favor.
2. Denver Broncos – Marcell Dareus, DT/DE, Alabama The Broncos are in an enviable position. If there is a quarterback they love (Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton), they can go that route. If they want a defensive end, they can have their pick. But the key here may well be John Fox, the new head coach. He has always employed a 4-3 defense, but the Broncos have been built around a 3-4 system, which would require change. Under that premise, Dareus, who is ideally suited to be a tackle in a 4-3 scheme but can also play nose tackle in a 3-4 or move to the outside as a run-stopping DE, gives him too many advantages over the rest of the competition for this pick. The team suffered after trading away Jay Cutler, which is why they're picking No. 2. If Fox has any confidence in the combination of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, QB won't be an option here. DE Da'Quan Bowers, who reminds a lot of scouts of former Fox disciple Julius Peppers, could get the nod, but, with the expected return of Elvis Dumervil, getting a dominant inside presence could be the tipping point in favor of Dareus.
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 DTs Fairley or Dareus are on the board, they will get considered, as will DE Da'Quan Bowers. Buffalo could jump one of them. 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. Cam Newton may get serious consideration, given the recent news that Carson Palmer has put his house in Cincinnati up for sale and has made all the sounds of a guy ready to leave town. However, adding an offensive weapon like Green could be the salve to heal that wound and get Palmer back on the same page with the organization.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
No team fell faster and harder than the Cardinals did when Kurt Warner announced his retirement. Linebacker Von Miller makes a lot of sense here, since the Cardinals aren't going to pay Joey Porter the $6 million he is due in 2011 and both Porter and Clark Haggans are 34 years old and nearing the end of the line for their careers. The Cardinals need to improve their defense, especially at linebacker in Ken Whisenhunt's 3-4 defensive scheme that hasn't developed a pass-rushing OLB in the four years the system has been in place. Miller could step in immediately and be what Karlos Dansby used to be. However, this is a league that is defined by quarterbacks and teams need to sell jerseys. Denny Green tried and failed with Matt Leinart. Now it's Whisenhunt's turn to rise or fall with Newton. It's a risk. I see Newton as a talent that needs to be in the right system to succeed. The Cardinals may be that organization. If nothing else, he will sell a ton of jerseys and make the ownership happy in that regard.
6. Cleveland Browns – Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
The Browns were ravaged with injuries using a three-man front last year. With Dick Jauron now running the defense, the Browns are going to need to add multiple players to fill the needs of a 4-3 defense Jauron employs. For the first three mock drafts, I had Bowers going either No. 1 to Carolina or No. 2 to Denver, because he has as much upside in talent at the position as Julius Peppers did when he came to the Panthers as a pass-rushing rookie freak. Bowers blew up last season as a pass rusher with 15.5 sacks, as well as having a hand in 93 tackles. If he falls to Cleveland at No. 6, it may be impossible to pass on him, especially given the team need along the defensive front. He could step in on Day One and be a dominant starter for years to come if he is healthy. Given the talent of the opposing quarterbacks in the division (Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Carson Palmer), pressuring them will be a top priority moving forward for the franchise. They can't have another performance like they got last year or they will be picking high in the 2012 draft as well.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
This could be a dream sequence for the Niners if the draft falls the way we are predicting it here. They have only one QB (has-been David Carr) under contract for 2011, so they will be looking to do something in that regard. Yet, if both Gabbert and Newton are off the board, the two best players in my estimation – Miller and CB Patrick Peterson – would both be on the board. Like the Vikings in 2007, when Adrian Peterson fell into their laps at No. 7, the same is likely to happen here. Aside from quarterback, the most glaring needs for the 49ers are at outside linebacker and cornerback. Either Miller or Peterson would be an immediate impact player, but the combination of Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson managed just six sacks between them in 2010. Miller had 17 to lead all college defenders last year in sacks. He is relentless and, combined with Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, could transform the LB corps from a liability to a strength in a hurry.
8. Tennessee Titans – Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
The Titans may be looking at Cam Newton with this pick if he is available, 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 – Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
The Cowboys have a lot of needs on defense and there has been a lot of buzzing linking them with having interest in Wisconsin pass rusher J.J. Watt. However, a case could be made that Peterson should be the No. 1 overall pick because of his cover skills – he has been compared favorably to perennial All-Pro Charles Woodson of the Packers. Jerry Jones loves to evaluate talent and has often tipped his hand. Last year, it was clear he loved Dez Bryant (still lamenting passing on Randy Moss more than a decade earlier). Peterson may be just too talented to pass up. A shutdown cornerback can do more for improving a pass rush by taking away a top target than drafting a pass rushing rookie DE. Peterson is that guy and he is that good.
10. Washington Redskins – Cameron Jordan, DE, California
A fast-rising prospect, he may be one of the shining examples of hard work and good character paying off on draft day. The Redskins don't have anyone they can count on – Kedric Golston is a free agent and Vonnie Holliday and Phillip Daniels are showing the signs of age and aren't equipped anymore to be every-down players. The experience they can give Jordan, the son of Vikings great Steve Jordan, would be invaluable in his progress as a pro. He could work his way into the lineup early while both of the aging vets are fresh and take over when one of them invariably breaks down during the season. Jordan is a dominant player who stood out against the best tackles in the country at the Senior Bowl. Even though quarterback is a top priority if Donovan McNabb is out of the picture, unless Cam Newton is still on the board, the Redskins go for the best talent and best character in taking Jordan.
11. Houston Texans – Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
It's hard to imagine the Texans even allowing the clock to roll down from 15 minutes if the Fresh Prince of Lincoln is still on the board. Their corners are physical bump-and-run types, but they don't have a speed corner that can take NFL wide receivers deep down the field. The Texans had the offensive firepower to make the playoffs last year, but their defense got torched so routinely that it didn't happen. Amukamara is a glove fit of player talent and team need. Stop the clock at about 14:30 when the Texans are up if he's still there.
12. Minnesota Vikings – J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
There are two things to know about this pick. Watt is going to be the player taken here and it won't be the Vikings who take him. If there is a player they covet (in no particular order, Newton, Amukamara, Miller and possibly Quinn or Jordan), they would think longer about holding off on pulling the trigger – if Newton is there, they jump in with both feet. But, with all of them projected to be gone and the run on defensive ends beginning, the value of this spot would be enough. A trade scenario I could envision is New England moving up from No. 17 and giving the Vikings back the pick in the third round they squandered for Randy Moss. Watt is the type of player who has picked up a lot of steam in the last couple of months and has the skill to be a big-time producer for years. With the DE position expected to get hit hard in the second half of the first round, the value of moving up seems to make sense. Besides, last year the Vikings' top four defensive ends on the depth chart were all drafted in the fourth round. The Vikings move down, grab Jake Locker and walk away with their QB of the future.
13. Detroit Lions – Anthony Castonzo, 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. If the Vikings do trade down behind Miami, they may be prepared to take QB Jake Locker, but Chad Henne's crossroads may be in 2011, not in 2010 as some have theorized.
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. The Jags haven't drafted a QB in seven years and David Garrard is 33 and not getting any younger for a scrambler. Jake Locker may be a wild-card pick here, but DE is a more immediate short-term need.
17. New England (from Oakland) – Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri
This pick is being made on the premise that the Vikings don't make a trade with New England (look for it in Version 5.0 is nothing changes), but, for now, they still own the pick and can do all the wheeling and dealing they want. 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, Colorado
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
Seattle has given a vote of confidence to Bald Bomber Matt Hasselbeck, but Pete Carroll is smart enough to know that Hass is getting closer to being the Enfeebled Bald Bomber. The irony of this pick is that, if you look at the current draft order, once you get past Minnesota at No. 12, the only quarterback-contemplative teams in between that pick and Seattle at No. 25 are the Dolphins at No. 15 and Jacksonville at No. 16 – and neither of them are locks to go after a QB. Barring a trade on draft day, picks Nos. 17-24 won't even consider using first-round currency on a position that is already set. It would an ideal spot for Locker (a home-state product at the University of Washington) that can both sell jerseys and give the long-term health of the franchise a boost for the season ticket portion of the 13th Man. Ideally, he would be given a year or two to learn (like Hasselbeck did behind Brett Favre … and Mark Brunell … and Aaron Brooks … and Aaron Rodgers) and have his confidence when the keys to the franchise (and Carroll's coaching future) hang in the balance. He beat Carroll twice when he was coaching at USC, so there's a familiarity and a respect built in – which is half the battle.
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.