In our second incarnation of the Viking Update mock draft, it is the defensive players that are making the moves up the draft board. In an era in which 4,000-yard passers don’t even get invited to the Pro Bowl, the need for young defensive talent has taken a priority. In our final mock prior to the NFL Scouting Combine, which is going to raise and drop the stock of several top prospects, it would seem that the defensive standouts are taking a bigger role in coming off the board. After breaking down the team needs, it was almost impossible to find a team that doesn’t have multiple needs on defense. When that’s the case, the market dictates that players at those positions get pushed up the draft and others, like wide receiver, take a back seat. It’s not good news for guys like Michael Floyd, who take a big hit in Version 2.0 of our mock draft, but, for many of them, dropping to stronger teams may not be a bad thing.
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 – Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina. The Jaguars have a screaming need at wide receiver and, in our first mock, we had Michael Floyd going here. Jeremy Mincey is the only productive DE on the roster and he’s a free agent. The Jags have pressing needs at wide receiver and cornerback as well, so both Floyd and CB Dre Kirkpatrick could be considered here, but the quickest way to improve a defense is to generate a pass rush and, in this class, Coples may be the best pure pass rusher in the draft, which is enough to bump him up a couple of spots from where we initially had him to bring him to Jacksonville. Trading down might be an option here.
8. Carolina – Michael Brockers, DT, LSU. The Panthers have a lot of defensive needs, which could see them go to any level of the defense, but the Panthers inability to stop the run last year was a huge problem last year. Cam Newton did an incredible job of transforming the offense and there could be a push to try to make the Carolina offense the dominant focus of the team – which could lead the team to look at Iowa OT Riley Reiff to replace oft-injured Jeff Otah at right tackle. But the deficiencies in the Panther defense prevented the team from being more of a contender in 2011 than they were. With the offense taken care of last year, it’s time to address the defensive side of the ball.
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 – Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama. There are a lot of question marks as to whether the Bills are going to run a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. They have run a 3-4 the last few years and have drafted personnel to fit that system. The one thing that was clear in 2011 is that the Bills weren’t able to generate a consistent pass rush and that led to their collapse after a strong start that made them one of the “feel good” stories of the first month-and-a-half of the season. The good news with this pick is that it doesn’t matter what scheme they run, Upshaw can fit in either – he can be a down DE in the 4-3 or a standup pass-rushing linebacker in a 3-4. The Bills need to generate QB pressure if they’re going to be a contender any time soon and Upshaw should be able to provide an immediate upgrade.
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 – Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama. The Cowboys secondary was a mess late in the season last year and they’re going to need help this offseason at both cornerback and safety. Dallas has a history of taking cover corners early in the draft and, with Terrance Newman nearing the end of the line, that position needs to be addressed sooner than later. The Cowboys also have needs at safety and the interior of the offensive line, but those positions have historically still had good talent available beyond the first round. There is a reason why cornerbacks go high on draft day – because in the new-look NFL, they are required if a team is going to be successful (just ask the Vikings). Jerry Jones would be giddy to see Kirkpatrick – a legitimate top-10 talent – still available at this point of the draft and he would likely find himself on the field from Day One of the 2012 season.
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. Barron’s status remains in flux, because he is not only going to miss the combine, but also his pro day and, most likely, the chance to work out individually for teams prior to draft day. If the Jets are convinced he will be 100 percent when they need him, they pull the trigger, but he could be one of the players whose stock drops hard post-combine.
17. Cincinnati (from Oakland) – Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama.
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. Jenkins may be a bit of a reach because he hasn’t faced top competition, but he is a player we anticipate will get a ton of solid buzz coming out of the combine because of his pure athleticism. He will likely post some eye-popping numbers that will make somebody jump. With Leon Hall expected to miss the 2012 season with a torn Achilles, this need has jumped to the top of the list – even if the Bengals add a CB in free agency.
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 – Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame. When the Bears signed Jay Cutler, he was hailed as the savior of the franchise – the rare young quarterback with a decade of playing time in front of him that becomes available. However, unlike in Denver where he had Brandon Marshall as a go-to receiver, Cutler has had little more than a collection of No. 3-type receivers at his disposal. The Bears have needs on the offensive line and at cornerback, but if they are to make the most out of their heavy investment in Cutler to be a contender, they need to have a go-to receiver and Floyd could develop into that player for the Bears offense.
20. Tennessee – Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina. For years, the Titans were known for their impressive pass rushers creating pressure off the edge. Last year, their top sacker was Karl Klug, which had most fans asking “who dat?” and not in a good way. The Titans have three of their current defensive ends as free agents, which makes this pick even more imperative. They have a similar problem at safety, where the top four players currently on their depth chart are slated for free agency. But, unless Barron is still on the board, there isn’t a safety worth taking here, making Ingram, who has the athleticism to play outside linebacker if needed, more of a priority.
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 – Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska.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. Dennard has faced some of the college game’s top competition during the Cornhuskers’ transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten and will be ready to step into the starting lineup almost immediately. 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 – Devon Still, DT, Penn State. 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. Still 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 – Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor. 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. Wright 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) – Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois. The Patriots made it to the Super Bowl, despite having the AFC’s worst defense for almost the entire 2011 season. If they don’t trade out of this spot, which is always a possibility, the Pats need to infuse some youth and playmakers on an aging defense that wasn’t able to hold up despite having a relatively weak slate of offensive opponents last year. Mercilus can bring the pressure from the outside and nothing can change a game faster than a blow-up play that kills an opponent’s drive. The one given about the Patriots is that nothing is guaranteed. Bill Belichick has very strong opinions about the draft and has consistently made trades to either move down or defer to the following year – this pick was acquired when the Saints wanted to make sure they could land RB Mark Ingram. If any team is a pure crapshoot, it’s New England, so Mercilus going to Boston is far from a certainty.
28. Green Bay – Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State. For a team that won 15 games last year, the Packers boasted the worst defense in the NFL. There are so many needs that the biggest difficulty is projecting where they will go. They could use a pass-rushing DE, they need a complementary linebacker on the other side of Clay Matthews, safety Nick Collins might be done with a serious neck injury and CB Charles Woodson turns 36 this year. A wild card pick here could be Wisconsin center Peter Konze, since aging veteran Scott Wells is a free agent and drafting a “Sconny” would make huge points among the fan base. However, the Pack has too many defensive needs to ignore. In our view, they take the best athlete. If Cox has a strong combine performance, he won’t be available here. But, as it stands, he is the first step in a long process to rebuild the Packers defense into a group that, along with a dominant offense, could have the Packers back in the Super Bowl and trying to make another run at a perfect season.
29. Baltimore – Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin. The Ravens have ignored finding a replacement for Ray Lewis for years and all Ray-Ray does is come back and show why he will be a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after he decides to hang up his cleats. The same likely can’t be said for Matt Birk. He has abused his body for more than a decade with the Vikings and Ravens, and Harvard guys are usually pretty good with their money – playing one more year doesn’t seem to be an issue with him as it might be for others. He’ll be fine after retirement (broadcasting may beckon) and is likely not coming back next year. If he does, the Ravens would likely look at linebacker – given Lewis’ age and the fact that both Jarrett Johnson and Jameel McClain are free agents. But Konz is the pre-eminent center in this year’s draft and could easily become a fixture in the middle of the Baltimore O-line for the next decade. That is a value pick this late in the round that the draft-savvy Ravens likely won’t pass up.
30. San Francisco – Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina. If based purely on talent, Jeffrey would be gone long before this pick. But he has his share of red flags checkering his résumé and a lot of teams won’t use a first-round pick on a talented player who could cause headaches. However, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers might be the exception. Vernon Davis was a walking migraine for Mike Singletary, but Harbaugh harnessed his emotions and turned him into a team leader. The fact he brought in career head case Braylon Edwards last year speaks volumes. Edwards was never a problem, but his injured knees betrayed him. Michael Crabtree needs another receiver on the other side of the ball to take away double-teams and, given his talent, if Harbaugh can work his magic, Jeffrey should be able to contribute immediately.
31. New England – Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State. As stated with Pick No. 27, anything is possible with the Patriots. They could trade up, they could trade back (a distinct possibility with only two picks left on the opening day of the draft) or they could go off the board – remember when they were openly mocked for taking two tight ends in the 2010 draft. Who’s laughing at Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez or the decision to take them? The Patriots rank players by how they would fit in their system and an aggressive playmaker like Burfict would be a good addition to the middle of the LB corps. If Wes Welker doesn’t remain with the team, wide receiver could be a consideration here, but improving a defense that routinely got gashed would seem to remain the top priority.
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.