OVERVIEW: The persistent question that keeps seeming to frame how the first round of April’s NFL draft is going to fall has seemingly come down to where the quarterbacks end up. There is growing speculation that enough teams will be impressed in Cam Newton that they’ll take the risk-on-greatness pick in the top five. However, I’m still not sold on the buzz, especially given that, if the league has a protracted work stoppage, any rookie QB will miss out on critical time with his new team to learn the system and run reps over and over again. As a result, QBs are taking a hit in our Version 2.0 of the VikingUpdate.com mock draft.
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 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 – Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
This could turn out to be the most critical pick of the draft. A case could be made for a quarterback, whether the Bills like Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert better. A case could also be made for OLB Von Miller, who could help make the Buffalo defense a lot better in a hurry as a pass-rushing hybrid on the outside in a 3-4 set. But, with so many questions about the potential for free agency and the anticipated delay, the Bills have to take the best athlete with this pick if they don’t trade out. Peterson is a legitimate shut-down corner with Pro Bowl expectations in front him. It’s hard to pass on that.
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 – 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 might not know what their chances are 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 Marcell Dareus and OLB Von Miller are also possibilities, but this team needs a legitimate quarterback and they don’t have one now.
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 – Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
The Niners already have one of the game’s best young linebackers in Patrick Willis. Miller could help make this unit dominating. Much like Adrian Peterson falling to the Vikings at No. 7 in the 2007 draft, a case could be made that three or four teams in front of the 49ers could take him off the board. Like the Vikings, the board falls right for the Niners, who find it impossible to pass up on his talent.
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 – J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
A fast riser on a lot of draft boards, Watt is a big pass rusher that fits into the mold of Cowboys DEs of recent vintage since the Bill Parcells era brought the 3-4 to Big D. The Cowboys have questions in the secondary as well, so CB Prince Amukamara is definitely in the mix here. With the relative depth at DE, the Cowboys could consider dropping a few picks, especially if someone wants to get in front of Washington and take Cam Newton. Jerry Jones loves to get his hands wet and this could well be his opportunity. If he stays, it’s either Watt or the Fresh Prince of Nebraska.
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 – Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
The Texans defense got torched on a weekly basis last year, as opposing teams passed almost at will, consistently scoring 28 or more points and forcing the Texans to get into shootouts. With an offense that is steady, adding a cover corner like the Fresh Prince will make the entire defense better. As bad as it, being immediately better is a must.
12. Minnesota Vikings – Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
This is going to be a debated pick regardless of how it falls. Ryan Mallett is available and, after having the Vikings taking him in previous mock draft versions, I’m more convinced that he will be a victim of the draft and the anticipated lack of time teams will have to work with their young quarterbacks. If the work stoppage drags deep into the summer, any quarterback taken in the first round may be a wasted short-term pick since they would be thrown out extremely green into the fray. Clayborn is a safer pick and, with it becoming clearer that Ray Edwards won’t be back, adding talent at a strong position is a must. Considering how Rick Spielman has hinted the Vikings will get their third-round pick used in the failed Randy Moss experiment, the Vikings could realistically drop down four or five spots and still potentially address their need at QB or DE. The last time the Vikings took a Hawkeye in the first round (Chad Greenway) it worked out pretty well, so history is on their side.
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 – Cameron Jordan, DE, Cal
Once again, Mallett could be in the conversation here, especially since Jaguars fans have grown weary of the team swinging and missing high in the draft on defensive ends. They always seem to take a player with great Combine numbers or one viewed as a pass-rush specialist that never seems to pan out. Jordan comes from a great bloodline – his father Steve is arguably the greatest tight end in Vikings history. The fans may roll their eyes, but if the Jags are going to make a run with the Colts appearing to come back to the pack and both Houston and Tennessee having issues, they may have to swing for the fence on yet another DE and hope for the best.
17. New England Patriots (from Oakland) – Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
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 choices/minor needs 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. The team was forced to franchise guard Logan Mankins to prevent him from getting away, but the need at tackle is even more pronounced. If Tom Brady and his no-name offense are to get back to the Big Show, they need to keep Brady protected. Solder can get that done.
18. San Diego Chargers – Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri
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, there is no better choice at this point than Smith. 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 – Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
The Bucs hung around the playoff picture before a late-season collapse and one of the missing ingredients was a third-down pass rusher. Kerrigan 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 fast, the Bucs either jump in on the run or miss out, making him the ninth player with D-line potential coming off the board.
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 – Gabe Carimi, 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 – 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 – 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. 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.
30. Chicago Bears – Dan Watkins, G, Baylor
The Bears have some needs, but keeping Jay Cutler from getting pounded is a top priority. Chicago is aging up front and Watkins could compete for a guard spot from Day One. For a team that earned a first-round playoff bye, the Bears have multiple needs that won’t all be addressed in the draft. A run on Baylor Bears stops with the Chicago Bears, but it was nice while it lasted.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – Ben Ijalana, OT/G, Villanova
The Steelers always find a way to find quality defensive players after the first round, so this pick is likely going to be at the position of greatest need – which is up front on the offensive line. Whether used initially as a swingman or inserted as a starter, the Steelers are a franchise that builds from the inside out. They got a gem in Maurkice Pouncey to man the center position for the next decade. Ijalana can be inserted next to him at guard and solidify another O-line spot for the foreseeable future. It’s difficult to sell fans on taking O-line in the first round two straight years because they don’t sell jerseys, but Pittsburgh may be the exception to that rule.
32. 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.