OVERVIEW: We're heading down the home stretch to the draft and, in Version 5.0 of our mock draft, we've become one of the lemmings running off the ice cap when it comes to drinking the Cam Newton Kool-Aid. We have pushed him to the top of the draft because, just as QBs like Alex Smith, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford vaulted to the top of the charts in recent years after the buzz surrounding them helped elevate their stock. While Newton is far from a guarantee, the momentum he is building and the buzz coming out of Carolina is that, with the anticipation of a rookie salary cap, he won't be a bank-breaker with the chance of being a franchise player. For that reason, Newton has (somewhat begrudgingly) gone to the top of the charts. Never to be outdone, in this version of our mock, we're projecting a first-round trade between the Vikings and Patriots that not only makes senses, but works out with the draft value chart.
1. Carolina Panthers – Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Blaine Gabbert might be more NFL-ready. Patrick Peterson and Von Miller are the two biggest impact players in the draft. Marcell Dareus, Nick Fairley and Da'Quan Bowers could be defensive standouts for years at their position (defensive line) that has the most first-round busts. Yet, when the dust settles, the Panthers need to go the extra mile – even if it means taking a chance on upside (a big chance). Newton will sell jerseys and season tickets, which is an underestimated factor in draft-day decisions. You can't ignore that. The Panthers were a once-proud franchise that has a great O-line and a power running game. But, with a cavalcade of clowns that have run in and out of the lineup at QB in recent years, they need a big splash. Nobody talked about the Panthers last year. They will now.
2. Denver Broncos – Marcell Dareus, DT, Auburn
John Fox is going to overhaul the Broncos and that starts up front. While Nick Fairley may have more pure athleticism, Fox needs to have a run-stuffer – Dareus' strong suit. Given that division rivals Kansas City and Oakland were the two top rushing teams in the league last year, this pick essentially makes itself.
3. Buffalo Bills – Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
If Newton was still on the board, he would get strong consideration. But, with him gone and the team apparently satisfied with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their QB moving forward, they need to bring in the best player available. In our mind, that's a toss-up between Miller and Peterson. But, given that Buffalo is moving from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, the need for a pass-rushing impact linebacker trumps any other need the Bills have. Miller can be a starter on Day One and be a perennial Pro Bowler for years to come, giving Buffalo what they really need long-term – a player to build around who won't be a project.
4. Cincinnati Bengals – A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
Blaine Gabbert remains a distinct possibility here, because of the current friction between aging veteran Carson Palmer and the direction of the team. He has put his house in Cincinnati up for sale and has said he's done with the organization, despite having four years left on his contract worth $50 million. However, the best way to kiss and make up is to give him a weapon to make his job easier. Green can be a dominant receiver and, whether Chad Ochocinco is back or not (I don't believe Terrell Owens) will be, adding a blue-chip weapon to the receiving arsenal could go a long way to mend fences and get a team that is just one year removed from a division title back into contention.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
No team suffered more from losing a quarterback than the Cardinals did when Kurt Warner retired. They went from being the power of the division to being a last-place team. If Miller is still on the board, they may be pulled strongly in that direction, but, for a franchise that has been at the top of its division for so long, the fan base needs to be energized. Gabbert can likely step in immediately and be the Day One starter if he has the time to learn the playbook and the NFL lockout doesn't continue deep into the summer. As with Newton, keeping the paying customers happy is a critical component of organizational success. Gabbert will get the fans excited, just as Sam Bradford has helped energize St. Louis – both in the product on the field and the visibility in the community as fans have dusted off their old jerseys. Ironically, the Rams went down when Warner was sent packing, just as Arizona has fallen hard. Gabbert can help pull them out of their doldrums.
6. Cleveland Browns – Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Some draft analysts are projecting Bowers as dropping all the way to Minnesota at No. 12 or even farther after progress on his surgically repaired hasn't gone as hoped, at least according to reported rumors. However, his injury wasn't a torn ACL. It was a torn meniscus, a relatively common injury among players and one that isn't viewed as career-threatening. Bowers has the talent to be dominant and, with head honcho Mike Holmgren desperate to make an impact in Cleveland, nothing can help do that faster than adding a stud player who, if not for the injury, would likely come off the board with the first pick of the draft. His slide from the top will be pronounced, but it ends here.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Much like Adrian Peterson, team need at the top of the draft allowed its most talented member to fall to No. 7. The 49ers have a need at cornerback and, it can be argued that with his ability as a shutdown corner and premier return man, he will improve two of the three facets of the team with one draft pick. If I was a G.M., I would consider him with the No. 1 overall pick. At No. 7, he is almost a steal.
8. Tennessee Titans – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
The Titans have struggled at DT since Albert Haynesworth stole $100 million from Daniel Snyder. Fairley was dominant last year and played his best on the biggest stage – almost singlehandedly taking over the BSC Championship Game and helping Auburn win the title. The Titans are in the same division as two of the most potent offenses in the league (Indianapolis and Houston) and another that runs the ball as well as anyone (Jacksonville). Fairley could give the Titans the missing ingredient their defense has lacked since Fat Albert left town. Fairley and Jason Jones could suddenly give the Titans a pair of young studs in the middle of the defense that can both collapse the pocket, making the entire defense that much more formidable.
9. Dallas Cowboys – Tyron Smith, OT, USC
No offensive tackle has jumped up the board more than Smith in the last two months. A right tackle at USC, it wasn't until he added weight prior to the Combine and still looks as quick and nimble as ever, he went from being the top right tackle prospect to the top tackle prospect in general. The good news, if you want to call it good news, is that right tackle Marc Colombo has hit a wall and allowed 40 QB pressures last year, despite missing time to injury (again). It would allow the Cowboys to start Smith at right tackle immediately and be groomed to become a bookend left tackle for the next decade.
10. Washington Redskins – Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
Wide receiver Julio Jones will get a lot of consideration, but, for a team running a 3-4 defense, getting a pass rusher is always critical. Combining Quinn on one side and Brian Orapko on the other could make the Washington defense one of the most feared in the NFL. He has unquestioned big-play ability and, barring one of the top two quarterbacks dropping to this spot, it makes too much sense for the Redskins to address their other needs later. There's nothing saying they have to trade Donovan McNabb, so getting the best athlete available is a priority and, at this point, given Washington's needs, Quinn is that player.
11. Houston Texans – Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
A top cornerback can make an entire defense better. It's funny how much a player like Charles Woodson has done to make the Packers' pass rush better by routinely taking away a primary receiver on a play. No team got scorched more often over the top last season than the Texans. It only makes sense that the Fresh Prince of Nebraska comes in to lock down one corner position for the next several years and let the new 3-4 defense take hold in Houston.
(Minnesota trades its No. 12 overall pick to New England for the first-round pick the Patriots obtained from Oakland – No. 17 overall – and the third-round pick New England acquired from Minnesota in the Randy Moss trade – No. 74 overall)
12. New England Patriots (from Minnesota) – Cameron Jordan, DE, California
The Patriots move up to get a high-energy, high-character player that will likely be a glove fit. With Ty Warren coming off a career-threatening hip injury, the Pats get a player with bloodlines and a proven track record of success that can give the Patriots a combination of pass rusher and run stopper needed in their 3-4 defense with the multiple running threats the other three teams in their division possess. The Pats essentially give the Vikings a pass for the Moss debacle and get the guy they want.
13. Detroit Lions – Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
The Lions have invested a lot in their offense over the last few years (Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson with premium pick and traded back into the first round to lock down Jahvid Best), but they may have to go to the well once more to make it all worthwhile. Word out of Detroit is that OLT Jeff Backus is better suited to be moved to the right side. If that needs to be immediately, it can be done. If they would rather wait a year to make the switch with a full offseason for Castonzo to learn the ropes, so be it. The Lions defense needs help, but, with the investment made in the offense, without quality tackle play, it's all for naught.
14. St. Louis Rams – Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
There is growing discussion that Jones won't be available this late. His stock is on the rise and many analysts have him off the board in the top 10 picks. This would be a dream sequence for the Rams. All great quarterbacks have blossomed once they get a go-to receiver. Sam Bradford would join that group with the addition of Jones. The Rams have a slew of Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receivers, but no legitimate No. 1 receiver (sorry, Donnie Avery). The biggest worry the Rams may face is that someone will trade in front of them to take him. If he lands here, it's a perfect marriage.
15. Miami Dolphins – Mark Ingram, RB, Oklahoma
Both of the mainstays of the Miami running game – Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams – are likely going to be unrestricted free agents when the labor impasse is settled. Williams is old and Brown has a growing injury history. Much like the Rams' pick in front of them, it is a matchmaker's dream. Ingram doesn't have blazing speed, but he is productive between the tackles – the M.O. of the Dolphins running game. He can step in if Miami wants to move on from both Brown and Williams, or be a complement runner to one of them. There's little downside with this pick.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Viewed by some as a top-10 pick, the Jags will be happy to step up to the DE plate once again. It seems like Jacksonville takes a defensive end high in the draft or in free agency every year and they never pan out. As far as the draft is concerned, they tend to take ‘tweener type DE-OLB hybrids and get burned. Watt is a classic DE in every sense of the word and, after a lot of swings and misses, Jacksonville finally lands a player who looks like he can contribute over time.
PROJECTED TRADE (see above)
17. Minnesota Vikings (from Oakland through New England) – Jake Locker, QB, Washington
The Vikings took out a balloon mortgage two years ago when they made wooed Brett Favre to make a westward expansion from Wisconsin (via New York), and the crippling payment has come due. The Vikings have late-round 2010 rookie Joe Webb (ironically taken with the same 199th pick that the Patriots used to draft Tom Brady) on the roster, but little to nothing else. With free agent uncertainty surrounding the draft process, the Vikings are almost forced to make a move. Thanks to a projected trade with New England, they get the best quarterback available and recoup the draft pick lost to the Patriots to acquire Randy Moss. While it won't preclude the Vikings from chasing a veteran QB – given what was learned in the Favre-Aaron Rodgers situation, a young QB can learn a lot watching a consummate pro at work – picking a QB lays the offensive foundation for the future and hedges Minnesota's bet if it can't acquire someone like Donovan McNabb for the short-term with a veteran-laden team.
18. San Diego Chargers – Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
There seems almost no option for the Chargers other than to take a defensive end or a DE/OLB hybrid. They collapsed last season for two reasons – a suspect offensive line (with no L.T. to bail them out) and an anemic pass rush. Clayborn will give an immediate upgrade to a line that was patchwork at best last year and has free-agent uncertainty. If there is another DE they like better, the name may change, but the position stays the same.
19. New York Giants – Mike Pouncey, G/C, Florida
The Giants would have been a playoff team with a better O-line. The team has questions at both guard and center and Pouncey has the ability to impact both. Depending on how things shake out, he could step in immediately at guard or center and protect Eli Manning from the beatings he took last season. In New York, when things went bad, they snowballed. Much of the blame lies with the suspect play of the O-line. It may be a little high for Pouncey based purely on his NFL readiness, but this is the one team that has a need at both center and guard and he can fill either.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri Few people out of the Florida TV markets saw much of the Bucs last year. They were on the doorstep of the playoffs if not for a late-season fade. Much of that was the result of their inability to generate a pass rush. They won 10 games last year despite the defensive front, not because of it. Want to win a bar bet? Who led the Bucs in sacks last year? Stylez White with 4.5. If there is any more reason for justifying this pick, there shouldn't be?
21. Kansas City Chiefs – Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
The Chiefs rushing offense was dominating at times last year and propelled them to a division title in 2010. There is a faction that believes the Chiefs may be looking at an offensive tackle to make the team oppressive offensively. Teams like Indianapolis and St. Louis have won championships with a team based almost exclusively on offensive dominance, so it is a possibility. But, the Chiefs are better served by addressing a defense that needs more playmakers. Ayers brings that element to the table, which is why the Chiefs look to defense first to defend their division title.
22. Indianapolis Colts – Nate Solder, OT
The Colts have a need in the interior of their defensive front and they could well go that route – Corey Liuget or Stephen Paea will both get strong consideration. But, when you make Peyton Manning your franchise player (complete with a $20 million franchise tag), the primary objective must be to keep him healthy. Tony Ugoh was a failed experiment and Charlie Johnson, while doing an admirable job in relief, is best suited to be a backup. Solder would provide an immediate upgrade where it is needed most – protecting Manning's blind side.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
Offensive line could be the direction the team is going because Michael Vick needs more protection than he got last season. Heading into December, the Eagles were viewed as the best team in the NFC before getting exposed. Much of that fall from grace was the result of the secondary not being able to stop opponents, especially over the top. Smith will compete for a starting job immediately and give the Eagles defense a much-needed boost.
24. New Orleans Saints – Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
The Saints have numerous needs on defense, but, if they are to get back to the top of the NFC South, stopping the run will be the top priority. The other three teams in the division have built themselves offensively to be run-first teams. The only way to prevent that is to be able to consistently stop the run and force them into bad down-and-distance situations. A big run-stopper like Liuget will be able to stop the bleeding in the run defense and let their opportunistic secondary do what it does best.
25. Seattle Seahawks – Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
If Jake Locker is still on the board, I believe the Seahawks would jump on him, since Matt Hasselbeck isn't getting any younger. When Seattle held sway over the NFC West for years, they did so with a dominant offensive line that included Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson. With Russell Okung locked in at left tackle and Carimi brought in on the right side, Seattle will have a pair of bookend tackles that it can realistically anticipate will be in place for the rest of the decade. Such investments don't happen often, but, when they work, that can help vault a team from the middle of the pack to the top.
26. Baltimore Ravens – Brandon Harris, CB, Miami
The Ravens have a long history of making stars out of defenders from "The U" – Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have both been dominant for years. Harris is said to be a little too full of himself for the liking of some scouts, but, as a fellow Hurricane, if anyone can get him focused on his job and knock his ego down a peg to a manageable level, it would be Reed and Lewis. Harris may not be a great fit in some locker rooms, but in Baltimore, he could be a potential Pro Bowler.
27. Atlanta Falcons – Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
The Falcons have John Abraham on one side and need more of a disruptive force on the other side of the D-line. In a typical draft, a player with Kerrigan's ability would be long since gone, but, thanks to an unprecedented defensive end draft class, a player like Kerrigan remains in play at the 27th pick. The Falcons have proved that they have the horses offensively to be a Super Bowl contender. Adding a pass rusher like Kerrigan could go a long way to getting them over the hump.
28. New England Patriots – Mickel Leshoure, RB, Illinois
Entering the draft with six picks in the first three rounds, the Patriots have already used that advantage to move up to grab a dominant defensive player. Now they look to the offense. Leshoure is a banger that can help the Patriots be a more balanced offense and, when they have leads late in games, pound the ball and milk the clock. With so many picks, they could make a myriad of moves – trading up, trading down or making a pick at a different position. Leshoure may not be their ultimate choice here, not because he doesn't fill a need but because the Pats have so many different options with so many picks.
29. Chicago Bears – Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
This is Chicago's first first-round pick in three years due to the Jay Cutler trade and the pick almost has to be used on protecting their investment. The team shuffled its O-line around considerably and had players out of position. Sherrod could step in at either tackle spot and help solidify the O-line. Cutler has taken a beating over his first two seasons and it has to stop.
30. New York Jets – Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor
The Jets don't have a lot of weaknesses, but one they do have is a pure 3-4 anchor in the middle of the defense. Taylor is the biggest defensive tackle in the draft and would provide a Pat Williams-type of two-down run-plugger that could make the Jets even more dangerous and get them over the hump of the AFC Championship Game that has eluded them the last two years.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – Aaron Williams, CB, Texas
The Steelers have had a relatively non-descript secondary, patching together cornerbacks for the last few years. They haven't developed their own young CBs, which is somewhat surprising seeing that head coach Mike Tomlin cut his teeth as a D-backs coach with Tampa Bay. Williams would be able to compete for a starting job early and be a project for Tomlin to mold in his image. For a team that has been the gold standard of franchises in recent years, adding a weapon that can make an immediate impact is something Pittsburgh can't pass up on.
32. Green Bay Packers – Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia
The Packers are the defending champs and are young on both sides of the ball. They don't have too many holes to fill, but one area they can improve on is lining up a playmaker opposite Clay Matthews at OLB. In 2010, they made the most of the value meal combo platter of Frank Zombo, Brad Jones and Erik Walden. Houston is a mid-first-round prospect who falls to them because of the skeletonizing of the defensive ends earlier in the round. Dom Capers' defense needed time to gel, which happened about midseason last year. A light bulb went off and they responded, becoming a ferocious unit. One of the few weaknesses will be filled by Houston, making one of the better defensive units even stronger as they prepare to have the bull's-eye on their backs 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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