Mock drafts are probably the single most enjoyable, yet frustrating things to work on in the offseason. Although the Combine hasn’t taken place yet, here’s our best projection at the first round before Combine and Pro Days take place. Feel free to criticize/praise/respond with your thoughts on any of the picks since there is always tons of room for change.
1. Carolina Panthers – Nick Fairely, DT, Auburn
A top-three player on every draft board, the Panthers have had poor defensive tackle play for the past few years now. He has some character concerns and was a one-year wonder, but no one can deny his play on the big stage.
2. Denver Broncos – Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Shutdown corner Champ Bailey probably played his last down as a Bronco and they will definitely need to draft a replacement for one of the best corners of all time. Peterson has elite athleticism and possesses terrific size at 6-foot-2, 211 pounds. He also is one of the top return guys in the country.
3. Buffalo Bills – Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
The Bills have a ton of options and could go with a defensive lineman like Dareus, Quinn or Bowers, but after last year’s selection of C.J. Spiller, you never know what to expect. Newton has a lot of intriguing athletic skills with his elite arm strength, running ability and size. I could see the Bills pulling a shocker and drafting their quarterback of the future although there are definitely many reasons to doubt Newton’s transition to the NFL.
4. Cincinnati Bengals – A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
T.O. is a free agent and Ochocinco may be out as well. Who better to step in for two of the best receivers of this era then Green? His combination of size, speed and hands have drawn comparisons to Randy Moss. While he doesn’t have that elite (than again who does?) speed of Moss, he definitely is a No. 1 wide receiver at the next level and was very productive at Georgia.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
The Cardinals’ pass rush took a big hit last year much in part due to the lack of quality options at outside linebacker. Miller exploded on the scene as a junior when he posted 17 sacks. He had a great Senior Bowl and is expected to blow up the Combine which should vault him into the top 10.
6. Cleveland Browns – Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Talent has never been an issue with Bowers – motivation has. However, the junior defensive end finally put it all together this season as he recorded 16 sacks this season and showed why he was the top prospect in the nation coming out of high school. The Browns are transitioning back to a 4-3 defense and need a pass rusher.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
Before the 2010 season many had Quinn pegged as the No. 1 overall pick. After sitting out the year due to a suspension, his stock has slipped a bit, but the talent is still there. As a sophomore he had 11 sacks and was the best player on a talented North Carolina defense. He is a physical freak at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds and has the speed and fluidity to transition to an outside linebacker in the 3-4.
8. Tennessee Titans – Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Vince Young is gone and Kerry Collins is old. The Titans are a franchise without much direction so what better to righten the ship then to bring in a franchise quarterback? Gabbert was a high-profile recruit coming out of high school and while he will probably be drafted higher than he should because of the question marks with all the other draft-eligible quarterbacks, he still possesses a lot of qualities of a future starter.
9. Dallas Cowboys – Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
Terrence Newman has been a disappointment the last few seasons because of injury and ineffectiveness. Mike Jenkins had a terrible year after making the Pro Bowl in 2009. The Cowboys have a pretty solid front seven but can’t cover in the back end. Amukamara is the top senior corner and while there are questions about his speed, he is a complete corner.
10. Washington Redskins – Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
Santana Moss is a free agent and 2008 draft picks Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas did nothing (Thomas isn’t even on the team anymore). This team has a ton of needs on every level on both sides of the ball, but the NFL is a passing league and the Redskins have no No. 1 threat at receiver. Jones is a physical receiver with great size and may remind coach Mike Shanahan of Brandon Marshall who he coached in Denver.
11. Houston Texans – Marcell Dareus, DE, Alabama
The Texans are making a switch to the 3-4 and Dareus is the top end prospect for that system. He is a good player against the run and the pass and has a ton of talent. While he didn’t always live up to the hype at Alabama, he faced a ton of double teams and had good coaching from Nick Saban. He should fit in nicely across from Mario Williams and give the Texans a solid foundation in the trenches.
12. Minnesota Vikings – Cameron Jordan, DE, California
While the Vikings used to boast the NFL’s best defensive line, the group failed to live up to expectations last year. Pat Williams is probably headed for retirement and Ray Edwards will cash in on a long-term deal in free agency. Jordan displayed his versatility at the Senior Bowl and has moved up draft boards. He has good size and speed and an array of pass rush moves. He can fit in any system and could step in at left end and slide down to defensive tackle in pass rush situations.
13. Detroit Lions – Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
For some reason Jeff Backus is still the starter in Detroit. When you make the investment at quarterback like the Lions did with Matthew Stafford in 2009, you need to protect it. Solder is a prototypical left tackle with great size at 6-foot-8. While he may not be an elite level prospect like Jake Long or Ryan Clady, he has tremendous upside and should be protecting Stafford’s blind side for the next decade.
14. St. Louis Rams – Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
The Rams have made strides on defense under coach Steve Spagnuolo. The front line is solid with defensive ends Chris Long and James Hall and James Laurinaitis is a future Pro Bowler at middle linebacker. What the Rams lack is a playmaking outside linebacker alongside him. Ayers has elite size at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds and should start as a strongside linebacker in the 4-3 from day one.
15. Miami Dolphins – Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams used to be a pretty dynamic combo but those days are probably done. Brown is simply too injury-prone and Williams is too old. The Dolphins offense is built to run the football behind a good offensive line and Ingram is clearly the best back in this draft. His combination of power and vision make him a good fit for this offense.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
Smith is flying under the radar after a down year due to injury. However, he posted a school-record 11.5 sacks in 2009 as a redshirt freshman and has great length and speed. He will either be a weakside end in the 4-3 or convert to an outside linebacker in the 3-4. Adding him to a line that already features Tyson Alualu and Terrence Knighton should give the Jaguars the pass rush they’ve been desperately searching for since trading up for Derrick Harvey in 2008.
17. New England Patriots – J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Watt possesses prototypical size for the 3-4 end spot and plays with a great motor. He’s versatile and is equally adept at stopping the run and rushing the passer. A former walk-on, he seems to possess a lot of qualities both on and off the field of a Bill Belichick-type player. For more on Watt take a look at the Potential Patriots: Defensive Line post.
18. San Diego Chargers – Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
Liuget isn’t well known with fans, but he is highly regarded by scouts and NFL personnel people. He is a good pass rusher as evidenced by his 4.5 sacks last season and at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds he has the size to become a 3-4 defensive end for the Chargers.
19. New York Giants – Tyron Smith, OT, USC
The Giants offensive line is aging and injury-prone and former second-round pick Will Beatty hasn’t proven himself to be the replacement for David Deihl at left tackle. Smith needs to gain weight as he is reportedly only 285-290 pounds, but he has elite athleticism. He only played right tackle at USC but his agility and quickness should allow him to make the switch to the left side.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
Clayborn came into the 2010 season with a ton of hype after posting 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss as a junior. His production took a huge hit as he only had 3.5 sacks and 7 TFL, but he represents good value for the Buccaneers at No. 20. The addition of Clayborn to a young defensive line with Gerald McCoy and Brian Price would instantly upgrade the pass rush.
21. Kansas City Chiefs – Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia
Assuming the Chiefs keep Pro Bowler Tamba Hali, they still need someone to take some pressure off him. Houston may not be a complete player as he struggles against the run and isn’t great at dropping into coverage, but no one can question his ability to get to the quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 258-pound junior recorded 10 sacks last season after taking down the quarterback seven times as a sophomore.
22. Indianapolis Colts – Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
Peyton Manning will make a lot of players look good. His ability to move around in the pocket has masked the poor play of his offensive line over the past few seasons. Castonzo has a ton of experience and has good height and length. He should fill in as the starting left tackle from day one.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
Smith is ranked by many as the No. 3 corner behind Peterson and Amukamara, but the former Bear is no slouch in his own right. He has terrific size at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds and is said to run in the 4.3s. That combination will have teams drooling and his play backs it up. He only allowed 11 completions his senior season.
24. New Orleans Saints – Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
The Saints’ defense was very opportunistic when it won the Super Bowl in 2009, but last season it was exposed as a group without enough talent or pass rush. Kerrigan is an ideal fit as a 4-3 weakside end and plays with a great motor. He was extremely productive with 12.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss his senior season. He would fit in well across from Will Smith as the Saints try to recapture their 2009 form.
25. Seattle Seahawks – Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
Carimi is a physical run blocker who was a mainstay on the left side for the Badgers. He isn’t a great athlete, but his toughness would be welcomed on a team that needs to upgrade its offensive line. With 2010 first-round pick Russell Okung at left tackle and Carimi at right, the Seahawks would be set for the next decade.
26. Baltimore Ravens – Brandon Harris, CB, Miami
The Ravens have been known for their elite defense for the past decade. However, with aging stars like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, they need to replenish the talent to continue the trend. Corner is the team’s weakest area and Harris would be a welcomed addition to a defense that already features three former Hurricanes. He is a feisty player who isn’t afraid to help out in run support.
27. Atlanta Falcons – Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame
Tony Gonzalez has lost a few steps and is nearing retirement. Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback, but he needs more weapons to keep this offense rolling. Rudolph seems a logical replacement for Gonzalez as his size and ability to catch the ball should give Ryan a big target. Another possibility could be a receiver like Baldwin, Titus Young or Torrey Smith.
28. New England Patriots – Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida
There have been plenty of rumors that the Patriots were interested in drafting a Pouncey last year. However, the Steelers scooped up Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th pick so the Pats may just have to settle on his twin brother, Mike. That may not be such a bad thing as Mike was a very good guard his sophomore and junior seasons before switching to center his senior year. He struggled with snapping, but showed improvement by the end of the year and could start at guard and make the switch to center. The interior of the Patriots line is a huge concern and Pouncey would help fix that immediately.
29. Chicago Bears –Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
It’s a simple formula in football: you need a quarterback to win. The Bears have a good quarterback in Jay Cutler, but they do a pretty bad job of protecting him. Chris Williams hasn’t cut it as the left tackle of the future and the options outside of him are limited. Sherrod is a first-round talent who presents good value this late in the round. He can step in day one and provide some stability in protecting Cutler in the pocket.
30. New York Jets – Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor
To say the Jets defense didn’t live up to their own expectations would be fair. The front seven created little pass rush and the defensive line is full of no-name players like Mike DeVito and Sione Puoha and aging starters in Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins. Taylor is a relative unknown to most fans, but scouts are very high on the former Bear who has great size at 6-foot-4, 340 pounds. He can play nose tackle and possibly defensive end in the 3-4, which should appeal to a defensive guru like Rex Ryan.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – Aaron Williams, CB, Texas
Aaron Rodgers exploited the Steelers’ biggest weakness in the Super Bowl – their pass coverage. The Steelers’ front seven is easily the best in the NFL, but the back end is questionable. Troy Polamalu is the best safety in the league, yet he can’t seem to make it through a full season healthy. While Ike Taylor is a good corner, the Steelers don’t have much else to write home about. Williams is a physical player who is known as an excellent run-support corner with good height and fluidity. He’d fit right into the team’s attacking-style defense.
32. Green Bay Packers – Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State
The Packers don’t have many needs besides an outside linebacker and on the offensive line. With the top tackles off the board and no 3-4 OLB worthy of a first-round pick, they could address their third biggest need which is at defensive end. Heyward is a first-round talent who will slip because of the depth of this year’s defensive line class and his elbow injury. Ted Thompson can take advantage of his fall and let him fill the spot that Cullen Jenkins and/or John Jolly would fill as both are free agents.