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 to Commissioner Roger Goodell. The Colts have imploded the QB position to start over – jettisoning Peyton Manning, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. If that isn’t stacking the deck for Luck, nothing is.
2. Washington (from St. Louis) – Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor. The Redskins met the outrageous demands of the Rams, giving up their first-round draft pick in each of the next three drafts and a second-round pick this year to land the QB of the future. Why did they do it? Simple. Since 2000, they have started Brad Johnson, Jeff George, Tony Banks, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, Todd Collins, Donovan McNabb and Kyle Orton – only one of them they actually drafted. If that isn’t reason enough to make the deal, nothing is.
3. Minnesota – Matt Kalil, OT, USC. This is a 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.
4. Cleveland – Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama. The Browns may hit the chicken switch and pull a reluctant too-high trigger on QB Ryan Tannehill, but they could easily trade down and still land Tannehill. If they stay here, swallow hard and commit another year to Colt McCoy, the Browns have to go with the most valuable player they need. That would be Richardson. Peyton Hillis jumped ship and went to Kansas City and the void at that position is massive. A strong case can be made for WR Justin Blackmon or CB Morris Claiborne, but the need at running back is too glaring. It doesn’t hurt that T-Rich may be the best RB to enter the draft since Adrian Peterson.
5. Tampa Bay – Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU. The Bucs stepped up big-time to address a couple of glaring needs – signing WR Vincent Jackson and G Carl Nicks to lucrative free agent deals. If Richardson is still on the board, they would likely consider him, but, given the circumstances, they meld need with talent. Claiborne may end up being the most impressive player in this year’s draft. Ronde Barber is 37 years old – well beyond the age at which most CBs hit the wall. Fellow CB Aqib Talib’s off-field issues make him a huge question mark moving forward. In Claiborne, the Bucs get perhaps the best non-QB prospect in the draft, and, after spending big to get a couple of heavy hitters on offense, land the best defensive player in the draft.
6. St. Louis (from Washington) – Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State. The Rams would be absolutely thrilled if this projection pans out. Had they not been able to swing a trade to move out of the No. 2 spot, they likely would have selected Blackmon with their pick. As it stands, not only do they get the most impressive wide receiver in the draft, they get another second-round pick and two more first-rounders in the next two drafts. Even if Robert Griffin III becomes a Pro Bowl-type quarterback, the Rams will benefit more by being able to fill their many gaping holes with first-round talent for the next three years. When the Rams made Sam Bradford the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, the one thing they never did was give him a go-to receiver to throw to. With this pick, that mission is accomplished.
7. Jacksonville – Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina. The Jaguars have many, many needs and the problems with the Jags offense are as glaring as any. It could be argued that Jacksonville has the worst offense in the NFL and if Maurice Jones-Drew would get injured, they would be a decent college offense. There will be a sentiment that says they have to address offense early, whether it’s a go-to wide receiver to help Blaine Gabbert’s maturation as an NFL quarterback or a left tackle to protect his blind side. However, if you watch any Jags games from 2011, the defense was close to dominating. With an offense that scored more than 20 points just once all season, the Jags defense should have allowed 35 points a game on average. They allowed more than 30 points just three times. The team can take the Ravens approach and build around its defense as a dominant unit. Jeremy Mincey emerged last year as a pass-rush threat, but needs someone on the other side. Aaron Kampman wasn’t the answer. Coples may well be the best fit for building a viable team in the short-term in hopes the Gabbert will help lift the offense sooner than later.
8. Miami – Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M. If he is still on the board at this point (just say no, Cleveland), the Dolphins may have to make this pick simply to appease their fans. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Joe Philbin, the new head coach and former offensive coordinator in Green Bay, would pull a “Scott Mitchell move” and bring in Matt Flynn. But Flynn signed with Seattle because Miami got enamored with Peyton Manning and struck out on both counts. The Dolphins signed David Garrard, but he opted to sit out all of the 2011 season because he was salty about being released by the Jaguars and turned down offers to sign on elsewhere. His commitment isn’t there. He’s a bridge to grooming Tannehill in Philbin’s vision. He’s Donovan McNabb. All Vikings fans can hope is that Miami gets scared and jumps to No. 3 to get him – and gives the Vikings a harvest of picks to move. If they do, Riley Reiff, welcome to Minnesota.
9. Carolina – Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis. This is a tough pick because the Panthers clearly need help on the defensive front and, while LSU’s Michael Brockers has a higher ceiling moving forward, Poe is a massive tackle with athleticism that was on display at the Combine. He didn’t play top competition at Memphis, but, when draft rooms are evaluating talent, they often look as much at athletic ability as they do who he played for and against. It’s clear the Panthers have needs at all three levels of the defense, but the defensive tackle crop is the one that the talent pool drops the fastest. Poe should be able to step in quickly and make an impact. Two months ago, we thought he might be a reach at No. 11 to Kansas City. Two months later, the Chiefs will have to consider trading up from No. 11 to land him.
10. Buffalo – Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa. A month ago, the two biggest needs on the team were at pass-rushing defensive end and wide receiver. The Bills made sure they didn’t lose WR Stevie Johnson. They broke the bank to solve the other with the signing of DE Mario Williams. Buffalo had to overspend to get the top free agent in this year’s class to sign, but they got it done. Now they have to draft well to make it all work. The team split time at left tackle in 2011 with Demetrius Bell and fourth-round rookie Chris Hairston. Reiff would step in immediately and help upgrade an offense that needs a foundation piece like Reiff on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blindside.
11. Kansas City – Luke Kuechly, MLB, Boston College. If Poe is still on the board, I think the Chiefs would jump on him. But, with Poe gone, the Chiefs and head coach/defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel go for the biggest difference-maker they can find on defense. Kuechly was a tackling machine at B.C. and has the combination of brains and brawn that will be an ideal match in the middle of the Kansas City defense. Given that the three division rivals all have veteran QBs and strong running games, if the Chiefs hope to compete, they need as many athletes as they can find on defense. Kuechly should start from Day One and be a fixture on the defense.
12. Seattle – Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina. The Seahawks have done a nice job at addressing needs in free agency. They spent to solve their quarterback issues with the free-agent signing of Matt Flynn, they re-signed Red Bryant and brought in versatile Tennessee D-lineman Jason Jones. Ingram brings a lot of versatility to the table as both a defensive end in Pete Carroll’s defense and an outside linebacker prospect who, depending on need, can play as a stand-up linebacker and cover backs and tight ends heading up field. The division is wide open, despite the 49ers running away with the NFC West last year. The Seahawks need to add some more impact players to the roster and Ingram is the type of dynamic talent that could make the biggest splash from the No. 12 position.
13. Arizona – Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford. This may be the first of many opportunities for WR Michael Floyd to come off the board, but, at this point, the Cardinals have more pressing needs. Another team spurned by Peyton Manning, they begrudgingly gave QB Kevin Kolb a $7 million bonus, even though he knows he was Plan B in terms of who the team wanted as its QB in 2012. The Cards re-signed Early Doucet and need help on the O-line badly. Levi Brown was released and re-signed at a lower price and right tackle Brandon Keith has battled injuries. Martin could take his place at right tackle immediately and push Brown out the door at left tackle in relatively short order.
14. Dallas – Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama. The Cowboys have decided to blow up their secondary during the offseason. They released Terence Newman and have lost confidence in Mike Jenkins, whose injury history has derailed his career. The team invested in free agent Brandon Carr and, teamed with Kirkpatrick, could give the Cowboys a pair of the best cornerbacks this side of Philadelphia. Given that the division already includes Eli Manning and Michael Vick and the addition of RG3 to the Redskins make this pick one that not only make sense, but might be necessary if the Cowboys intend to compete for a playoff spot. The Cowboys will take a long look at defensive linemen and possibly guard David DeCastro, but, given the ability of the other quarterbacks in the NFC East to extend plays and force CBs to cover men longer, the Cowboys need secondary help more than any other weakness on the team.
15. Philadelphia – Mark Barron, S, Alabama. The biggest need for the Eagles and embattled defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was at linebacker, but the inexplicable trade that gave them DeMeco Ryans took LB off the front burner. Barron’s stock has slipped because he had hernia surgery that kept him out of the combine workout, his pro day and individual workouts. But his surgery isn’t expected to set back his progress once the team starts post-draft workouts. The Eagles arguably have the best cornerback tandem in the league with Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel. Adding a playmaking, big-hitting safety would fill a defensive void that has existed since Brian Dawkins got old.
16. New York Jets – Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama. The Jets collapsed late in the season due in large part to a defense that talked a good game but didn’t play it. Upshaw is the type of player Rex Ryan would love to mold into his image. Initially, he will likely be a part-time player, but, in an aggressive defense like the Jets run, having a player with the versatility to play both DE and OLB is a bonus that provides depth at two positions. Many believe Upshaw is a top-10 talent, which would make him a value pick here, as the Jets try to get over the hump that has eluded them and made Ryan look like an arrogant bigmouth. After taking a big backward step last year, the Jets need to get their aggression back and Upshaw will be a big step in that direction.
17. Cincinnati (from Oakland) – David DeCastro, G, Stanford. The Bengals have made the playoffs two of the last three years. In 2009, they did so largely on the strength of their defense. Last year, they did it in large part to a youth-infused offense. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green both made an immediate impact, but anyone who knows the smashmouth nature of the AFC North, those games are won and lost in the trenches more than anywhere else in the NFL. Cornerback and running back may both be bigger immediate needs, but DeCastro is a younger version of Steve Hutchinson and could be a critical piece to the O-line puzzle for years to come. There isn’t a CB or RB at this point of the draft that warrants selection here.
18. San Diego – Cordy Glenn, G/OT, Georgia. The Chargers faded badly last year and have question marks on both sides of the ball. Offensive tackle was a concern prior to the free-agent period, but the team re-signed OT Jared Gaither, who filled in for former Pro Bowler Marcus McNeill when he went down to injury. With both of them back, the emerging O-line needs to address guard with the retirement of Kris Dielman. After losing Vincent Jackson and Mike Tolbert, not to mention the laundry list of injuries Antonio Gates has sustained, the last thing the Chargers need is an O-line that was a porous as it was late last year. The big question is going to be health. Glenn is massive, checking in at 6-5 and nearly 350 pounds and will pose an interesting conundrum to the coaching staff – do you keep him at guard where he could dominate for years or groom him to eventually move to left tackle? That’s a nice “problem” for a team to have.
19. Chicago – Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State. We had WR Michael Floyd going here, but, seeing that the Bears traded to reunite Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, it would take a lot of sand for the Bears to hit the wide receiver spot with their first-round pick after giving up two third-rounders to get Marshall. Anyone who has seen J’Marcus Webb play knows that he is not the long-term (or short-term) answer at left tackle. Cutler has routinely taken a beating because Webb whiffed on a speed rush and left Cutler open to blindside shots. Adams is huge, but his inconsistent effort at OSU has made him somewhat suspect in terms of sure-fire first-rounders. He’s the kind of guy Mike Tice would drool over the opportunity to mold him into an elite left tackle. If Tice gets any say in the matter, look for the Bears to go O-line with this pick. The big question is going to be health. Adams played more than eight games just once in four years at OSU and comes with a risk/reward factor. But, given Chicago’s porous O-line, it’s time to start taking chances.
20. Tennessee – Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina. The Titans lost Cortland Finnegan to free agency and need to find a replacement sooner than later. The team held off making any big moves in free agency while they wined and dined Peyton Manning and held cap space open in the event they signed him. That didn’t happen and now they have to scramble to replace some of their own free agents they lost. He is a prospect that has been steadily rising since the combine and is a playmaker in the Finnegan mold that can help make a difference on the defensive side of the ball.
21. Cincinnati – Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama. Few players were as dynamic at the combine as Jenkins, but he also has his share of baggage – multiple children and marijuana arrests – that could impact his draft status. With Leon Hall expected to miss part or all of the 2012 season, Nate Clements regressing and Pacman Jones not being someone that can be counted on (if he’s re-signed at all), help is needed. Jenkins has incredible athleticism and, coming off an eye-popping performance at the combine, he has pushed his way into this position. Running back is a possibility, but not a likely choice with this pick.
22. Cleveland (from Atlanta) – Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame. The Browns used the No. 4 pick on a running back to help the offense and now lock down a go-to wide receiver they haven’t since Braylon Edwards was in his prime. It can be argued that, without a viable quarterback, Floyd would be lipstick on a pig, but, with so many teams locking down QBs of the future over the last couple of years, the Browns could be in line to land one of the top QBs in the draft next year and have a couple of big-time weapons in place – Cleveland’s version of having Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin in the fold before they drafted Christian Ponder. Colt McCoy clearly isn’t the answer, but Cleveland’s offense will be markedly better with the addition of Trent Richardson and Floyd.
23. Detroit – Nick Perry, DE, USC. The Lions proved that their defense is in need of help after getting torched by the Packers junior varsity in Week 17 and blown out by the Saints in the first round of the playoffs. They have a pair of dominating tackles but need to add depth. Kyle Vanden Bosch is 34 and the team used the franchise tag to keep Cliff Avril from getting away. Ideally, Perry wouldn’t have to be an immediate starter, but finding replacements from one DE or the other (or potentially both) next year is going to be a priority and Perry should be able to step in as a situational player this season and be groomed to take over long-term starting in 2013.
24. Pittsburgh – Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State. If Cordy Glenn is still on the board, the Steelers may jump on him. However, nose tackle Casey Hampton suffered a significant ACL tear during the playoff loss to Denver and may not be ready for the start of the season. In fact, the injury may be career-threatening at his age. While Cox isn’t a standard 3-4 nose tackle, his athletic ability is such that the Steelers will have a hard time passing on him. The Steelers need help on the offensive line and at running back with Rashard Mendenhall expected to miss the entire 2012 season, but this is a pick based purely on talent and Cox has the type of skills that would help make an immediate impact.
25. Denver – Michael Brockers, DT, LSU. Every year, there are a couple of players with top-10 type talent that drop for whatever reason. Brockers is arguably the best DT in the draft class, but, because of team needs elsewhere in the dozen or so picks in front of Denver, he slides right into their laps. This is a perfect storm pick – because the Broncos’ most pressing need is at defensive tackle and Brockers is a gift waiting to be opened. He’s a one-year wonder but has an incredible upside that John Fox will exploit. Some might think the Broncos would go wide receiver to give Peyton Manning another weapon, but, unless the defense can stop the run (which is no small feat in the AFC West), the team won’t win consistently.
26. Houston – Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor. The Texans have needs on both sides of the ball, but, after finally getting over the playoff hump last year, they need to take the jump to the next level as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Andre Johnson is one of the best WRs in the league but has two problems. First, he has been injured too often and, given how much he means to the Houston offense, it was a huge blow when his hammies betrayed him last year. Second, the Texans haven’t had a legitimate complementary receiver to play opposite Andre 3000. Wright can flat-out fly and will require defensive attention, which not only will help open things up over the middle for Johnson, but help Arian Foster as well, as teams won’t be able to drop a safety in the box as often.
27. New England (from New Orleans) – Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin. These are the Patriots, so trading is always a possibility, but Konz is head and shoulders the best center in the draft. There may not be another center taken until well into Day 3 of the draft. This has become a need position, since four different guys played center for the Patriots last year and none of them excelled at it. It’s high for taking a center, but, like Maurkice Pouncey, the intent is to plug him in at center and keep him there for the rest of Tom Brady’s career and beyond. Bill Belichick is no idiot. He realizes talent when he sees it and any time you can get a player who can be a 10-year starter, you jump at it. Besides, if they don’t take Konz, the Ravens will – which is reason enough to pull the trigger.
28. Green Bay – Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson. The Packers won 15 games last year, but they did so without much in the way of a pass rush and teams being able to wall off Clay Matthews because they didn’t have a legitimate pass rush threat on the other side. Branch will likely be given time to work his way into the lineup, but the potential he brings as a stand-up pass-rushing hybrid outside linebacker gives the Packers as much bang for the buck as they can find at this late stage of the first round.
29. Baltimore – Dont’a Hightower, MLB, Alabama. If Wisconsin center Peter Konz is still on the board, the Ravens may look there even though they re-signed Matt Birk. But, with Konz off the board, the top priority needs to be finding a player to groom as a replacement for Ray Lewis, who, while still supremely talented, is nearing the end of the line. Hightower is a high-energy run-stuffer who could see his progress helped immeasurably by joining perhaps the greatest linebacker of all time. Ravens fans have never known what it’s like not to have Ray-Ray in the middle of their defense. That day is coming and the hope is that they will find his replacement in Hightower.
30. San Francisco – Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech. He’s become the talk of the wide receiver draft class thanks to his incredible size (6-5) and his sprinter’s speed. Personally, I’m not sure I would take him this high because he never really blossomed as a receiver in college despite his clear athletic gifts and may end up reminding some of Troy Williamson, but with Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss playing in front of him, he will get the year or two he needs to become a savvy pro and could end up being a steal if he lives up to his massive potential. He’s a roll of the dice, but one that may pay off in a big way – not so much in 2012, but in 2013 and beyond.
31. New England – Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina. The Patriots could go in several directions with this pick, including running back and defensive end (Miami RB Lamar Miller and Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus could both be options). However, the Pats have been active in free agency trying to address the DE position and used a pair of Day 2 picks in last year’s draft on running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, whom they hope will become starting types. Of all the free-agent moves the Patriots have made, one position they haven’t brought in outsiders has been at linebacker. Brown is an active, non-stop type of player that fits the Patriots model perfectly. He will have a chance to compete immediately for a job and allow the Patriots to settle back into a 3-4 defense – last year, they played quite a bit of the 4-3 set because they didn’t have the linebacker talent to consistently make the 3-4 work. The Pats had the AFC’s worst defense all season last year, yet found a way to win the most games. With the addition of players like Brown, they will only get better.
32. New York Giants – Lamar Miller, RB, Miami. The trade for Martellus Bennett likely limits the need to use a first-round pick on a tight end, so the next most problematic position gets addressed. The Giants released Brandon Jacobs when he refused to take a pay cut and Ahmad Bradshaw has chronically bad feet that have recurring stress-related injuries. He can’t be counted on to be a bell cow for 16 games, so Miller will get a chance to compete immediately. A one-cut, hit-the-hole-hard slasher, he has the chance to cut into Bradshaw’s time and help the Giants run offense improve from uncharacteristically being one of the worst in the league last year. The Giants will field a lot of calls from teams trying to get back into the first day of the draft before it ends, but barring a free-agent signing of a running back that can carry the mail, this pick would appear to make itself.
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.