OVERVIEW: With the days counting down to the draft, teams are getting more and more associated with specific players. The biggest change in this, our sixth incarnation of the Viking Update mock draft, is the ascent of wide receiver Julio Jones and drop of DE Da’Quan Bowers, who word has it may require microfracture surgery on his ailing knee. Considering that teams be able to have any contact with their rookies until the current work stoppage is settled (or court-ordered), his drop could end up being significant. With no free agency to bail out teams, they need to give a higher priority to the draft than ever before, since all of them will be taken with the expectation of starting immediately. As a result, other chips will fall.
1. Carolina Panthers – Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. Blaine Gabbert is 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 defensive line, a position 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 CB Patrick 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 – Julio Jones, WR, Alabama. The Browns are in dire need of improving their receiver corps and Jones could be in the same league as A.J. Green. If he makes it past the Browns, he could remain on the board for awhile, unless St. Louis trades up to get him (which is a definite possibility). If the Browns believe Colt McCoy can be their QB of the future moving forward, having a go-to receiver is a must. As it currently stands, they have a bunch of Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receivers, but nobody who projects to be a big-play staple moving forward. Jones brings that quality with him.
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 ORT 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. The Cowboys may be the first team to give Da’Quan Bowers a long look, because, if he returns healthy, he could be a steal with the ninth pick. But too many questions lead them to take the safer pick, which is Smith.
10. Washington Redskins – Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina. Wide receiver Julio Jones will get a lot of consideration if he is still on the board, 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 that 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 give the Vikings a pass for the Moss debacle and get the guy they want. Like a couple of teams in front of them, Da’Quan Bowers remains a possibility.
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. Da’Quan Bowers’ name will again be mentioned and the potential of having both him and Ndamukong Suh lining up next to one another could be enough to get the Lions to jump, but, in the short-term, keeping Stafford healthy is the primary objective here.
14. St. Louis Rams – Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois. Barring a trade to move up to grab Julio Jones, it’s looking more and more like the Rams will lose out on him in the first round. The next best thing is to give head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who earned his coaching stripes by developing linemen with the Giants, a big defensive tackle he can mold into a future star. With his quickness and ability to collapse the pocket, Liuget looks like a glove fit in Spags’ defense and Liuget could help the team get over the hump and make it back to the playoffs for the first time in a long time.
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, 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, laying the offensive foundation for the future and hedging Minnesota’s bet if it can’t acquire someone like Donovan McNabb for the short-term with a veteran-laden team. For the last time, Bowers remains a wild-card possibility – Minnesota was the first team to bite on Adrian Peterson, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility if their medicos believe they have a budding superstar whose injury is being overblown, much like it was with Peterson in 2007.
18. San Diego Chargers – Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. Who would have believed a couple of months ago that the player many viewed as a frontrunner to be the first pick of the 2011 draft would still be on the board at No. 18. At some point, his talent and ability outweigh the short-term injury concerns. The Chargers need a boost in the pass-rush department and, from the outside looking in, the only real question mark seems to be whether the Chargers will take a DE or a DE-OLB hybrid. Bowers has slipped a long way down draft boards, but there comes a time where a team has to roll the dice on greatness. The Chargers would appear to be that team.
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, should there be?
21. Kansas City Chiefs – Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA. The Chiefs run 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, Colorado. 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 – Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. The Saints haven’t got consistent production out of Will Smith and age, injuries and free agency leave a ton of questions up front, whether at the DE or DT position. Clayborn is a big pass-rushing lineman with the same sort of credentials Smith came into the league with a decade earlier. If the Saints can get anything resembling his type of production, they will be ecstatic if he falls here.
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 they 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 story on our subscriber message board.