In a year where nothing seems to be a certainty as the final days of draft preparation are upon the NFL's 32 teams, it's been as difficult as ever to determine who will end up where when the first round is completed Thursday night. While offensive tackle Luke Joeckel has become the consensus No. 1 pick almost by default, even his selection at No. 1 isn't guaranteed.
What is certain, however, is that there will be players that will be pivotal to the draft process – those players in whom the draft order will hinge. When trying to project in terms of a mock draft, there are teams that are the draft equivalent to the "bracket busters" that killed the hopes of NCAA fans last month. If a team moves up to take a specific player earlier than projected, the result is like dominoes falling.
These are the five players that will have the biggest impact on the draft based on where they get selected and the resulting changes to the draft order that will ensue. It's been difficult to project where players will go and in what order, but these players would appear to be the biggest lynchpins as to what will follow after they come off the board.
Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma. It is widely acknowledged that Joeckel and OT Eric Fisher will both be gone within the first five picks. Johnson is viewed as the third offensive tackle in the draft. Once the first two are gone, which some speculate will be the first two picks of the draft, the price to get into position to get Johnson will be increased greatly, which may be good news for a team like Cleveland at No. 6.
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Most scouts agree that after having recent drafts dominated at the top by quarterbacks, this year's draft is largely devoid of elite QB talent. Smith is viewed as the No. 1 QB on most draft boards. He has been linked to several teams, but if he makes it past Buffalo at No. 8, his wait on the draft board could be pronounced. Will he go to Buffalo? If not, will a team trade back into the first round to get into position to get him? If so, it could potentially start a run on QBs late in the first round or early in the second round, but those dominoes won't fall until Smith starts the pile moving.
Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama. This year's cornerback crop is deep in overall talent, but not elite talent. Milliner is regarded as the top corner in this Class of 2013, but until he gets selected, those teams in the market for a cornerback will wait and see as to whether the CB draft class gets early respect or not. Milliner could go as early as No. 4 to Philadelphia. The longer he stays on the board, the worse it bodes for the rest of the potential first-round cornerbacks.
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia. The conventional wisdom is that Austin is in the sights of the Rams at No. 16. As such, if a team wants to land him, it will have to move in front of St. Louis, which has created its own sub-plot for Thursday. If a team like the Jets, now armed with picks Nos. 9 and 13, wants to make a splash, Austin could be the key that alters a lot of picks that will immediately follow.
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame. Te'o was viewed as a top-10 pick prior to the BSC Championship Game debacle and the girlfriend hoax. Now he appears to be a long shot to go in the first half of the first round. He still has talent and some team will make the plunge on him. Depending on how early that is, the rest of the inside linebacker crop will be impacted, which will have a great deal of interest to teams like the Vikings that are clearly in the market for a rookie middle linbebacker.
In a year where few things are certain on draft day, one thing that has emerged is that these five players will hold the key to the first round. Only a handful of teams will end up with those players, but the impact they will have on what follows after their selection will go a long way in determining who ends up with what team when all is said and done.
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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