The 2011 season is over and the process of preparing for 2012 has already begun. The Senior Bowl has already taken place, but the most important aspects of the offseason are still coming – each of which will greatly impact the final draft stock of players and the view of team needs. The NFL Scouting combine will take place later this month, followed by free agency in March, then pro day and private workouts in March and April leading up to the 2012 draft.
At this early date, Version 1.0 of the Viking Update mock draft is essentially looking to pair the needs of the teams in the first round with the top available talent, helping familiarize fans with the players who are going to be commanding a lot of attention the final weekend in March. Player stock will rise and fall as the combine comes and goes and teams start addressing their most pressing needs in free agency. As a result, this will be the first of many mock drafts VU will do between now and draft day.
One note that should be recognized early is that we are already convinced that the momentum for quarterback Robert Griffin III will continue to grow as the draft draws closer, which is why we are already projecting a trade – with St. Louis swinging a deal with Cleveland to get the Browns’ two-first round picks and allowing the Rams to drop just two spots to make their first pick of the round.
Enjoy this mock for now, because, as anyone who follows the draft knows, the combine, free agency and pro days will likely change the prospect list considerably between now and April’s draft.
1. Indianapolis Colts -- Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford. It’s been a while since a No. 1 pick has been as locked and loaded as this one. VU has a strong track record of putting a guy at No. 1 and sticking with him even when the conventional wisdom has pointed at someone else early on in the draft process. This time, it’s such a no-brainer that even a donkey could figure this one out. The only way Luck doesn’t do a grip-and-grin with Jim Irsay is if the Colts trade the pick or Luck suffers a fluke off-field injury that puts his health in question. Otherwise, the Colts will be on the clock for about 10 seconds – the time it takes their runner in New York City to walk the pick up to Commissioner Roger Goodell.
2. Cleveland Browns (projected trade with St. Louis) – Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor. What would a VU mock draft be without projecting a trade? The combination of the combine, the Baylor pro day and private workouts will drive up Griffin’s stock, especially since Matt Barkley and Landry Jones opted to return to school – making Griffin the only blue-chip quarterback available after Luck. It’s no coincidence that the Browns hired Brad Childress as their offensive coordinator. He was credited with developing Donovan McNabb into an elite quarterback (at Philadelphia for a decade) and, while Tarvaris Jackson was a poor man’s version of McNabb, he had a solid win-loss record. Griffin is the best athlete of the three and the competition may be fierce. The Browns have the best immediate offer in return – giving up the fourth and 22nd picks in the first round (and perhaps a stray Day 3 pick).
3. Minnesota – Matt Kalil, OT, USC. This is great spot to be in, because, with the Vikings not having an interest in drafting a QB in the first round two years in a row, they could take Kalil, WR Justin Blackmon or CB Morris Claiborne – all of whom would provide a significant, immediate upgrade at their respective positions. While general manager Rick Spielman has always drafted horizontally – assigning comparable grades to players from different positions – now that he’s the shot-caller, he doesn’t have to do that anymore. He can draft the player he wants, not submit a list for others to mull over and decide upon. No position in the top 10 draft picks has been as a consistent in producing Pro Bowlers as left tackle, so, for our money, Kalil will be the blindside protector of Christian Ponder. As we are currently projecting our mock draft, the Vikings will have their choice of any non-quarterback. However, if the Rams fall in love with either Kalil or Blackmon and don’t trade out of their spot at No. 2, the Vikings will be in a position to hold any of the teams in need of a quarterback (Cleveland, Washington, Miami or Seattle) hostage for a slew of draft picks, which could make their phone lines burn heading into their pick. But, as it stands now, Kalil makes the most sense for a young core offense to build to the future.
4. St. Louis (projected trade with Cleveland) – Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State. The Rams used the first overall pick two years ago to take Sam Bradford, but never addressed the wide receiver position to give him a go-to guy. Many former top quarterback draftees have grown into elite quarterbacks when paired with a young wide receiver. The Rams have failed to either sign a free agent or draft that player … until now. Blackmon was a man among boys at OSU and has the potential to become a star in the mold of guys like Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson. First-round wide receivers are always a gamble, but if there is a player tagged like Megatron was in 2007, it’s Blackmon, who, if the Rams had stayed at No. 2, was just as likely as anyone to get selected. They get him and the No. 22 pick, which should put a smile on new head coach Jeff Fisher’s face as he tries to return the Rams to their former greatness.
5. Tampa Bay – Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama. This one appears to be going in one of two directions – Richardson or cornerback Morris Claiborne. Much like last year, when I had Patrick Peterson as my pick as the best pro prospect in my view, I did so knowing that because of the depth at the position, teams at the top of the draft would pass on him. I feel much the same way about Claiborne this year. While I wouldn’t draft him No. 1, I have him as my No. 3 prospect behind Luck and Kalil. However, that being said, the Bucs have problems on both sides of the ball. Richardson is a difference-making game-changer that could step in immediately and upgrade the Bucs running game. Depth at cornerback will stretch into the third round. In this year’s running back crop, Richardson effectively stands alone. This would be a strategic pick, since the run defenses of the other three teams in the division were 20th or worse. The two-headed beast of LeGarrette Blount and Richardson would give the Bucs a chance to dictate the tempo and pace. After him, however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bucs draft heavy on the defensive side of the ball, but not here.
6. Washington – Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU. The Redskins would be positively thrilled if Claiborne falls here. He is a true shutdown corner and both the Redskins and head coach Mike Shanahan have a history of bringing in big-time CBs – whether in the draft or free agency. If he’s still here, this would be the most lead-pipe-lock pick other than Luck. As a result, other teams may be willing to give up an awful lot to get into this spot. Claiborne will start on Day One and could be a Pro Bowler by his third season – he’s that good. He’s battle-tested from the pass-happy SEC and NFL-ready – a combination that might make the Redskins balk at making a trade.
7. Jacksonville – Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame. This is probably the most likely spot for a team to trade down to let a team up that has an organizational man-love for a specific prospect. There are going to be a handful of wide receivers taken before the Jags are on the board in the second round when the Jags have their next pick at No. 38. Floyd is a reach at this point, but the Jaguars need to give Blaine Gabbert a go-to target, which Jacksonville hasn’t had since Jimmy Smith got old and Keenan McCardell went away (a long time, indeed). The Jags could easily trade down 10 spots, collect a couple of solid additional picks (like a second-rounder this year and next) and still potentially get Floyd or one of the other top wideouts in the draft.
8. Carolina – Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama. Like Morris Claiborne, Kirkpatrick is a veteran of the SEC wars and they produce players ready to roll in the NFL. Last year, the Panthers made a big splash drafting offense with Cam Newton. With the 28th-ranked defense in the league, they need a player like Kirkpatrick that can make an immediate impact for a suspect secondary short on both talent and depth. With no defensive linemen off the board yet, this could also be a possibility, because the Panther pass rush has been anemic since Julius Peppers went away. They could use help at both DE and DT, but one thing seems certain They helped the offense last year with dramatic results. They will try to the same on defense. We just think Kirkpatrick is the best player to start the process.
9. Miami – Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa. Miami is going to try to adopt a Packers-style offense with new head coach Joe Philbin and, while they need a quarterback, it’s widely speculated that Miami will sign free-agent backup Matt Flynn. The Dolphins need to solidify their O-line and, while they have a rock in left tackle Jake Long and a good young talent in center Mike Pouncey, right tackle is a big question. The drafting of Reiff, who played left tackle in college, could give Miami three dominant offensive linemen for the next decade. Flynn is still a raw talent and will need all the protection he can get. Reiff could move to left tackle if Long gets injured without a significant dropoff, which is saying something given Long’s talent. If RB Trent Richardson falls here, it would be very tempting to team with Reggie Bush and safety is a concern as well. But Reiff is an elite offensive lineman and very few teams succeed without have a stout O-line. Reiff is as good a value pick as the Dolphins could make at No. 9
10. Buffalo – Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina. The Bills’ collapse last year was largely the result of a defense that had just 29 sacks. Word out of Buffalo is that the team plans to make a switch to a 4-3 defense, which is going to require significant changes in personnel. He can be a bull pass rusher from outside with stunting ability to find open seams to the quarterback. Whether in a 3-4 or 4-3, it will be hard to keep Coples out of the starting lineup. He is a top-five talent, but is very immature and could be a problem child once he gets paid. If he was in a big city like New York or Philadelphia, the temptations of being a wild child would be much greater than being in virtual asylum in Buffalo.
11. Kansas City – Dontari Poe, NT, Memphis. Poe may be a reach, because he is raw and Memphis isn’t a hotbed for NFL-ready players. But he is ideal for Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 defense as a pure nose tackle. The “safer” pick might be Devon Still, but Poe is the best nose tackle for a 3-4 in the draft. Because of that, the Chiefs may be willing to drop five or six spots and pick up a couple of extra draft picks. If they stay here, however, Crennel will have a huge say in making draft decisions. He is still going to be the defensive coordinator and, armed with the power of being both head coach and DC, he will likely push to get players that fit his system and Poe is a poor man’s Vince Woolfork, who made Crennel’s defense in New England better from Day 1.
12. Seattle – Nick Perry, DE, USC. Seattle needs a franchise quarterback, but moving up to No. 2 or 3 to get Robert Griffin III just doesn’t make sense. This might seem like a weak choice, because Seattle coach Pete Carroll coached him at USC, but that is precisely why he may well land here. He led the Pac-12 in sacks last year and played in an NFL-style defense. He could step in immediately and help the Seahawks generate a much-needed pass rush. A wild card here could be QB Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M. He would be a big reach (even bigger than Jake Locker or Christian Ponder), but, if he’s the guy they want, the Seahawks may be willing to trade down.
13. Arizona – Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford. In the second half of the season, the Cardinals defense was one of the best in the entire NFL, quietly winning seven of their last nine games and setting the foundation for the future. Given all the scouting attention Andrew Luck garnered over the last three seasons, it was hard not to notice Martin. The Cardinals have multiple needs, including a wide receiver to line up opposite Larry Fitzgerald in hopes of eliminating double teams on him, but the Cardinals have had solid luck in developing complementary receivers. Linebacker may be a consideration because of the age of the starting core, but the biggest problem with Arizona down the stretch was an offense that struggled mightily, leading us to believe that addressing the anemic offense will be the top offseason priority.
14. Dallas – Devon Still, DT, Penn State. The Cowboys have missed the playoffs the last two seasons despite arguably having the most talent on both sides of the ball. When it comes to this pick, Jerry Jones isn’t shy about making moves – trading up or down when he spots a player he really wants. Dallas has needs in the secondary and the O-line, but when you get to the middle of the first round, there are value picks that many scouts have rated as top-10 talents that have slid down the board because of more pressing needs for the teams drafting in front of them. Still is a big-time talent in the middle the could make an immediate upgrade to the Cowboys defense, but the defensive backfield and offensive line will both get consideration, especially if one of the players we have ranked higher on our draft board should slip.
15. Philadelphia – Luke Kuechley, MLB, Boston College. This pick would make history. Andy Reid has never taken a linebacker in the first round, but the need is simply too great to ignore. Kuechley is the Butkus Award winner in 2011 and would likely move into the starting lineup almost immediately. He has the athleticism that could revitalize a position that for years was a strength of the Eagles team but in recent years has been transformed from strength to weakness. The Dream Team added a lot of talent last year, but it didn’t take hold. If DeSean Jackson defects via free agency, wide receiver may also become a front-burner issue as the Eagles look to regain their spot atop the NFC East.
16. New York Jets – Mark Barron, S, Alabama. The Jets were one of the more disappointing teams in the league and one of the primary reasons is that they didn’t have playmaking safeties that could stop the bleeding when the defense was struggling. There are a lot of questions at wide receiver, which might get the Jets looking in that direction depending on what happens in free agency, but the need at safety is glaring for a defense that struggled badly last year after coming into the season with high expectations. Given the passing capability of the Patriots and Bills and the anticipated improvement of Miami’s passing game next season, the need at safety is so pronounced the Jets may feel a little bit forced to make a pick here. It doesn’t hurt that they will have their choice of any safety they want. We believe Barron has the most talent and would be the best fit.
17. Cincinnati (from Oakland) – Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska. The Bengals defense is their calling card. It is what made them division champions in 2009 and a wild card last year. However, the defense needs insurance in the secondary to remain a playoff contender. It can be argued that the team will need a running back, but with this pick they go after a cover corner who can upgrade the defense and, given the teams in between them between this pick (obtained in the lopsided Carson Palmer out-of-retirement trade) and their own pick at No. 21, the teams currently with those picks already have running backs in place that make drafting a RB here a risk worth holding off until they pick again.
18. San Diego – David DeCastro, G, Stanford. Long the class of the AFC West, the Chargers faded badly last year after an uncharacteristically strong start. The problems were on both sides of the ball. A pass rushing DE/OLB is possible, but the Chargers O-line needs a lot of upgrades and was the most glaring weakness on the team last year. DeCastro is one of the most technically sound guards in the draft and will likely be able to step in immediately. With longtime guard Kris Dielman facing the possibility of retirement after recent concussions, the need may also be commensurate with DeCastro’s talent, creating a draft-day marriage that makes sense on multiple levels.
19. Chicago – Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin. The Bears need a wide receiver to be a legitimate go-to guy for Jay Cutler and there is a belief among some scouts that the lack of top-end talent and dearth of second-round-type prospects will get a lot of teams to pass on wide receiver early. If that happens, the Bears would likely snap up WR Michael Floyd. If Floyd makes it past Jacksonville, his fall may be continue. However, the O-line is a mess and has been the last couple of years. Konz could fill one of those holes for years. The Bears squeezed as much as they could out of Olin Kreutz. Konz has the talent to be a fixture in the middle of the Bears’ offensive line like Kreutz was for the previous decade.
20. Tennessee – Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois. There was a time when Tennessee was one of the most feared defenses in the league. That is no longer the case. The once-mighty Titans defense was 31st in sacks last year and not much better in run defense. Mercilus is a strong pass rusher and also is adept at clogging runs coming his way. He isn’t a dominant tackler but is adept at slowing runners down and letting his teammates converge on him, which is often just as good as making the tackle yourself. The focus, both in the draft and financially, over the last few seasons has been to build an offense. It’s time the defense gets its share of the love on draft weekend.
21. Cincinnati – Lamar Miller, RB, Miami. Cedric Benson is in a lousy position. He is a free agent and wants a big contract. But he is too old to receive a long-term deal and isn’t a dynamic runner. Unlike players like Adrian Peterson that can break a long run that can change a game at any time, Benson is a between-the-tackles plodder and isn’t worth the money he wants. Running back is one of the most readily replaceable positions on the football field and Miller has the chance to step right in and fill the void if Benson is allowed to leave or even if he is signed to a short-term contract to remain the featured back in 2012. With two picks in the first round, the Bengals will be able to address both sides of the ball, which will be needed if they want to contend with the Steelers and Ravens and make it back to the playoffs next season.
22. Projected St. Louis (from Cleveland through Atlanta) – Zebrie Sanders, OT, Florida State. The Rams have already given Sam Bradford a weapon on the receiving end. Now they go about the business of trying to protect him. The Rams have had a swinging door at left tackle since Orlando Pace got old and left St. Louis. They used a second-round pick two years ago on Rodger Saffold, but he has struggled athletically to keep up with strong pass rushers. He would ideally be suited to be moved to right side or, at a minimum, have someone competing with him to try to bring the best out of him. Sanders can accomplish that. He may need some time to develop, but would almost surely be an upgrade for a QB who was consistently pounded last year until he finally broke down.
23. Detroit – Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama. The Lions have been one of the most astute teams in the first round since getting rid of village idiot Matt Millen. They have not only built an offense around Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson (actually a Millen pick) and Jahvid Beast, but have the best young DT tandem in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. However, one area that is still a need is in the secondary. Jenkins is raw, but has a great skill set. The jump from North Alabama to the NFL is pronounced and will likely take time, but Jenkins has experience with Florida and you can’t teach speed and instincts – Jenkins has both. The Lions proved late in the season they need a lot of talent in the secondary when they were lit up by the Packers and Saints at the end of the season. If Detroit is going to knock Green Bay off its perch atop the division, shoring up the back end of the defense will be a priority.
24. Pittsburgh – Cordy Glenn, G, Georgia. The Steelers have a history of building their offensive line through the draft and need to dip into that well again this year. Ben Roethlisberger spent much of last season running for his life and will need to have another upgrade like Maurkice Pouncey provided a couple of years ago. Glenn is battle-tested in the SEC, which has become an NFL proving ground with a team potentially playing ranked clubs almost every week of the regular season. For a team that rarely dips into the free-agent pool, rather rewarding its own home-grown free agents with contracts, if the Steelers are going to knock off the Ravens atop the AFC North, it will like require shoring up the guard position, which will benefit not only Big Ben but running back Rashard Mendenhall as well.
25. Denver – Michael Brockers, DT, LSU. John Elway is the faceplate of the franchise, but John Fox is the one really running the show. While the Broncos have needs on offense, with Fox – a defensive-minded coach – you can bet the Broncos are going to look to add to an already impressive defense. In the modern era of the NFL, successful teams tend to overload one side of the ball, often at the expense of the others. Teams like the Packers, Saints and Colts have won Super Bowls with a powerhouse offense and a somewhat suspect defense. Teams like the 49ers and Ravens got to the doorstep of the Super Bowl with a team based around the strength of its defense. Tim Tebow got most of the headlines for his late-game heroics, but the only reason he was able to make game-winning drives in the final five minutes was because the defense kept him in it when he stunk in the first 55 minutes. Brockers will provide a presence in the middle of the defensive front that will help Fox implement the changes he wants to bring to an improving young defense.
26. Houston – Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina. The Texans were one of the league’s better teams despite playing a good portion of the season without stars Mario Williams, Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. Johnson is one of the game’s best receivers, but he has a growing injury history and, even when healthy, doesn’t have a complementary receiver to take double-teams off of him. Jeffery has the kind of speed and hands that will make him difficult to take on in single coverage. He’s not going to have the kind of immediate impact of A.J. Green or Julio Jones last year, but he may be the missing piece for a Texans team that will likely enter 2012 as prohibitive favorites to repeat as the champs of the AFC South.
27. New England (from New Orleans) – Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama. The rich just keep getting richer, as a top-15 talent drops to them at No. 27. Upshaw is an active, aggressive tackler with a championship pedigree that should fit in nicely for a Patriots team that is looking to upgrade a defense that was ranked at or near the bottom of the league for most of the season. Secondary is also an option, but the Pats have a history of gleaning role players in the middle rounds. As always, Bill Belichick has made a history of stockpiling picks and, if there isn’t a player he absolutely covets, he has shown a propensity for trading high draft picks for first rounders in the following season. Mark Ingram’s selection by the Saints was the result of such a move last year, so trading out of the spot shouldn’t be overlooked. There will be players like Upshaw that drop much farther than some teams have them ranked, so you can bet there will be someone willing to give up a future No. 1 to move into this spot and, if history has told us anything, the Pats have always had a willingness to move on draft weekend.
28. Green Bay – Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina. The Packers have the need for a pass rusher on the edge and Ingram has the athleticism to play outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 defense as well as being a situational pass rusher early on. He may have to make a decision whether to commit himself to adding muscle and bulk and being more of a pure DE or stay where he is at now and be an edge rusher from the OLB position. The Packers had the league’s worst defense for most of last season and, while blessed with offensive firepower, Green Bay’s defensive deficiencies came back to bite them in the playoffs. Don’t forget that Green Bay was a 15-1 team last year and, for most of the season, was being touted as a legitimate contender to being the first 19-0 team in NFL history. They don’t have many holes, but getting more playmakers on defense will go a long way to keeping them one of the pre-eminent franchises in the league.
29. Baltimore – Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State. Ray Lewis was drafted the year that the Ravens moved from Cleveland to Baltimore. He has played at an elite level for a whopping 16 seasons, but the time has come to groom the eventual replacement for Lewis. Burfict is an ideal candidate because he is an aggressive tackler that is always around the ball and could improve by leaps and bounds with a year or two to learn at the feet of a Hall of Famer what he needs to do to prepare himself to be a professional both on and off the field. With time running out on Ray-Ray for getting back to the Super Bowl, Burfict will be given time to make his transition in the attempt to replace a legend.
30. San Francisco – Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor. The Niners came within a pair of boneheaded special-teams mistakes by Kyle Williams from going to the Super Bowl. San Francisco has a top-end defense, much of it built by deposed head coach Mike Singletary, but needs to light a fire under Michael Crabtree to be a go-to guy. He has yet to live up to his enormous potential and perhaps bringing in a playmaker like Wright will not only give Alex Smith another weapon to infuse life into the 49ers offense, but will also push Crabtree to start producing as he nears the end of his initial rookie contract. The Niners may consider a running back here because Frank Gore has shown a tendency to wear down late in the season and, with time running out on his two surgically repaired knees, the Niners will have to address depth at the position somewhere. It seems clear that offense will get the attention in the first round, but, if the team wants to get back to competing for a berth in the Super Bowl, the wide receiver position will have to be upgraded.
31. New England – Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State. The Pats will likely trade this pick as they always seem to do. If the Patriots kept their pick acquired from New Orleans, we project them improving the linebacker corps. A cornerback could go here, but the depth at D-line drops off quicker than in the secondary, adding to the value of the top-end defensive linemen.
32. New York Giants – Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina. The Giants have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but if there is a weakness, it is at linebacker – which, dating back to the days of Lawrence Taylor, was always one of the hallmarks of the franchise’s success. Brown is a speedy playmaker that could help revive a pedestrian LB corps for the NFC champs and give them the ammunition they’re going to need now that they have the bulls-eye on their backs for the rest of the conference.
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.