In the last two weeks of the NFL season, both the most important game and the least important game are on tap. Many of us (maybe) will watch the Pro Bowl this upcoming Sunday, and all of us will surely be tuning into the Super Bowl next week.
But when these two games are over, the league's next largest event is April's draft. It's a time for new faces, new beginnings and new found hope.
So in anticipation for the NFL's April extravaganza, here is my Pro Bowl mock of the 2012 NFL Draft's first round.
With their Week 17 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Indianapolis Colts have officially clinched the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Even though they'll be on the clock for four months, we all know the pick must be Stanford's Andrew Luck.
Luck going No. 1 overall is a clear no-brainer. The ability and intelligence are there, and it looks as if he's the next big thing coming into the NFL.
Indianapolis, however, will be in perhaps the stickiest situation in the game's history. If they take Luck, which they will, what happens to the quarterback they have now?
Maybe you've heard of him—Peyton Manning?
Will the Colts draft Luck and start him immediately?
Will they take Luck only to place him under the wing of Manning for a chunk of the season?
Or will Indy just cut ties with their longtime quarterback to make way for what looks like the second version of Manning?
There are many questions surrounding that potential scenario, but there are none when it comes to drafting Andrew Luck with the first pick in 2012.
Predicting a trade this early may be a tad ridiculous, but it seems very likely to occur. With teams such as Washington, Seattle, Kansas City and perhaps Cleveland vying for the services of Robert Griffin III, St. Louis currently sits in a commanding spot.
Jeff Fisher and his Rams can either sit in this spot and take USC's Matt Kalil or ship this pick away for multiple selections. Being that the Rams need help in nearly every position on the field, it would make sense to trade the pick in order to stock up on talent.
So who will be the team St. Louis trades with? Given their desperate need for a franchise quarterback, the Washington Redskins could very well emerge as the favorites.
The trade would certainly entail the Redskins surrendering their sixth overall pick as well as a few more selections in either this draft or a future one. This would mean St. Louis would still have nice position at the No. 6 spot along with the additional picks they could use to fill up their weak roster.
And we all know about Washington's horrific quarterback history, so Griffin would be nothing short of a savior for the struggling franchise. He has ridiculous accuracy on his deep throws, can make plays with his feet and was college football's best player in 2011.
Griffin has passed for 36 touchdowns and 3,998 yards and has thrown just six picks. He has also displayed his explosive run game, rushing for 644 yards and nine touchdowns.
After seeing Carolina take a risk that paid off huge dividends with Cam Newton, perhaps the Redskins will have no problems taking a calculated chance of their own on a quarterback with multiple tools.
If Washington or any other team were to trade up to select Griffin with the second pick, it would leave the Minnesota Vikings with the easiest pick in the entire draft. (Yes, even more so than Indianapolis and Luck.)
The younger brother of Carolina's Ryan Kalil, Matt is another one of those sure-fire offensive lineman prospects. Kalil is 6'7", 275 lbs and is probably the best player in this draft not named Andrew Luck.
Taking Kalil would help protect youngster Christian Ponder and provide some running space for Adrian Peterson. There is no doubt he can immediately help an offensive line that gave up the fifth-most sacks in 2011.
I've had the draft's top wideout, Justin Blackmon, mocked here quite a few times. But as it goes in just about every draft, teams often flock towards the best available talent over a need.
In this case, Cleveland certainly gets the best available player while addressing a need. There is no doubt the team is starving more for a wide receiver than a running back. Trent Richardson of Alabama, however, gives the Browns a much better ratio of talent-to-need than Blackmon does.
Richardson is the undisputed champion when it comes to this year's crop of running backs and would most definitely give Colt McCoy and his offense some much needed help. The 2011 Heisman candidate has nice vision, great speed and the hands to take some passes out of the backfield.
Cleveland's ultimate focus going into the 2012 season should be surrounding McCoy with some type of talent. Given Peyton Hillis' foggy situation as well as the team's lack of a playmaker on offense, Richardson would be a positive step forward.
With Ronde Barber growing older and Aqib Talib on his way out, the Bucs will be in the market for a new cornerback. If so, they would definitely grab Morris Claiborne with this pick. The LSU corner is easily the best prospect on the board at this point.
At 6'0" and 185 lbs, Claiborne has been one of college football's best cornerbacks over the last two seasons. In fact, he may be the best defensive player coming out in 2012. He has good hands, exceptional speed and the ability to be an elite cover corner in the NFL.
Tampa taking Claiborne would be yet another no-brainer in this draft.
As a product of the forecasted trade with Washington, the St. Louis Rams would wind up with the sixth overall pick in the draft. And if Cleveland does in fact take Trent Richardson with the fourth selection, Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon will be off the board as soon the Rams hit the clock.
Blackmon is the top wide receiving prospect in the draft. He has the size, footwork and hands to become an elite receiver in the NFL. Many compare Blackmon's skill set to that of Terrell Owens' minus the off-field baggage.
The Rams' current No. 1 target, Brandon Lloyd, is a free agent in 2012. He has already vowed to follow his former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. So it seems extremely unlikely the team will be able to reel him back in.
Luckily for the Rams, Justin Blackmon could be available and would immediately give Sam Bradford some help.
Although the franchise is working under a new regime, they claim all of their eggs are still in Blaine Gabbert's basket. Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in 2011, wasn't great by any stretch of the imagination last season. But if management is indeed backing up the young quarterback, they must give him any type of help.
The No. 7 spot may turn out a bit early to reach for some wideout help. Although head coach Mike Mularkey has quite the sweet tooth for wide receivers, I believe the best value pick for Jacksonville in this spot is Riley Reiff.
The Iowa product fills a team need and is probably the best available player on the board. And most importantly, Reiff fits the clean-cut bill put out by Jacksonville's general manager, Gene Smith.
Reiff has emerged as one of college football's best players as a result of his impressive 2011 season. He's 6'6", 300 lbs and has been praised for his great fundamentals.
Reiff has great footwork, bends very well and has already played in a pro-style offense. He would be a much-needed addition for an offensive line that has allowed the eighth most sacks in the NFL.
As far as obtaining wideout help for Gabbert, the Jags will have an ample amount of opportunities to grab some talent through free agency and the rest of the draft. The team does have some money to spend and can bank on some later receiving prospects given the draft's great depth at the position.
With no clear quarterback solution anywhere in sight for Miami, the team should look to stock up on the best available talent.
If the Dolphins want to reach in an attempt to fix their quarterback problems, they may take a flyer on Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M. I just don't see that happening, though. Tannehill is a good prospect but is not worth the eighth overall selection for Miami given the surprising success of Matt Moore.
Moore isn't the long-term solution at quarterback, but he has bought himself at least another season after this year's impressive play.
Stanford's Jonathan Martin should be on the board and would fill a considerable need for Miami.
Martin is flat-out huge, standing at 6'6", 305 lbs. He has good footwork, has great mobility and is a very smart player. Martin has the ability to open holes for running back Reggie Bush and keep Moore or their eventual quarterback of the future on his feet.
Morris Claiborne should be gone by this point, so Carolina could look to provide Cam Newton with a nice weapon for next season. The best wide receiver at this point in the draft would be South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery.
Jeffery, 6'4" and 229 lbs, has an incredibly promising skill set, making him a very desirable player in the upcoming draft. In three seasons at South Carolina, Jeffery has hauled in 22 touchdowns and eclipsed the 600-yard receiving mark each year.
There is no doubt the Panthers must improve their defense in order to compete. But with the NFL evolving into a passing league, Jeffery, who could wind up as one of the game's top wideouts, would be quite an investment for an already potent offense.
Cam Newton does have quite a few weapons. He already has help in Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. But neither David Gettis or Brandon LaFell appear to be future No. 1 wideout options.
If the Panthers take Jeffery, they'll supply Newton with a freakish No. 2 receiver for the next handful of seasons. And when Steve Smith eventually hangs them up, Jeffery would easily be a viable, possibly an All-Pro, No. 1. His tremendous upside should be enough to trump his potential bust factor for Carolina here.
As long as Jeffery pans out, the Panthers would have the ability to compete with the likes of New Orleans and Green Bay on the offensive side of the ball in the very near future.
In last year's draft, Buffalo took defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to improve their struggling line. Dareus, however, has not really done much to help the team this season. The Bills ranked 27th in sacks and were the fifth-worst rush defense in the league.
So Quinton Coples of North Carolina would be an incredible value pick for Buffalo here. The 6'6", 275 lbs defensive lineman racked up 7.5 sacks with 10 tackles for loss in his 2011 campaign. He certainly looks to be the very best pass rusher this draft has to offer.
Although Coples is undervalued in many mock drafts, he has the tools to become a very effective player in the NFL and can increase the value of Buffalo's first-rounder from a year ago.
Just like the Miami Dolphins, the Kansas City Chiefs will not have an obvious solution to their quarterback troubles in the first round. With that being said, the Chiefs could look for Kelly Gregg's replacement on the defensive line.
Luckily for Kansas City, Devon Still would most likely be available when their turn comes around. Still has nice size and can plow over opposing linemen en route to opposing quarterbacks. He moves with great focus, intelligence and explosiveness when coming off the line.
This Penn State product would fill a need and be of great value at the 11th (or 12th) overall selection.
As we finish our tour of teams who desperately need a quarterback, we arrive at the Seattle Seahawks. This was a team that narrowly won the NFC West in 2010 and did pose somewhat of a threat in 2011. Seattle has a relatively talented roster but certainly needs a quarterback to get to the next level.
Like I stated earlier, Ryan Tannehill could come up as a possible option for yet another QB-needy team. Tannehill, however, is much too raw at the position and just ran into a foot injury that will probably keep him out of the Combine.
So after taking that into account, it's much more sensible for Seattle to go address another need with the best available talent. One of the best remaining players on the board would Alabama's Courtney Upshaw.
Upshaw, linebacker for the national champion Crimson Tide, would give Seattle an immediate upgrade in their pass rush. He has good speed and good strength and is very quick off the ball. Upshaw also has tremendous versatility in terms of positioning on defense.
Seattle would be much better off going with Upshaw and spending a second-round pick on a guy like Brandon Weeden if they want a quarterback through the draft.
The Cards' offensive line hasn't exactly been great in 2011, ranking 31st in pass protection. So if the team believes Kevin Kolb is their guy, they must help him.
Stanford's David DeCastro would be a great fix for the O-line. DeCastro plays with a consistent mean streak and never takes a play off. He is also very athletic, exhibits nice footwork and is quite intelligent at his position.
DeCastro is undoubtedly the best guard in the upcoming draft.
There is no question that Dallas needs help in their shaky secondary. Their pass defense has been quite a problem the past few seasons, which has allowed opposing offenses to throw at will. Dre Kirkpatrick can help fix that problem.
At 6'3", Kirkpatrick is a considerably tall cornerback. He has great speed, elite size and a knack for making big plays. He is also extremely effective against the run thanks to his anticipation and that speed.
I do have Kirkpatrick dropping just a bit in light of his recent drug incident. This, however, will not be a problem for Jerry Jones. When they see talent, they go get it. Kirkpatrick is probably a top ten talent in this draft and finally gives defensive coordinator Rob Ryan something to work with in an otherwise unreliable secondary.
Philly's linebacking corps have been nothing short of terrible. This problem has been plaguing their defense and needs to be addressed. So if Luke Kuechly of Boston College is still there for the Eagles, expect them to jump on him.
He is a sound tackler, displays good mobility and is a very intelligent player. Kuechly also has good size and always seems to be in the middle of every play.
Some may argue the Eagles should go with the best remaining wideout in order to fill a potential hole left by DeSean Jackson. But with or without Jackson, scoring is not a problem for this team. When you have Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin headlining your offense, you're going to score.
The Eagles should look to patch up a problem that's been pestering them for a number of years now by taking Kuechly.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have made super targets out of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The two combined for 169 receptions, 2237 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2011.
Unfortunately for the New York Jets, it'll be something they'll have to deal with for a number of years to come. In order to counter the Pats' high-powered aerial assault, the Jets need to bulk up their secondary.
That is why Mark Barron, the draft's top safety, would be a logical selection here. Barron, a member of the great 2011-2012 Alabama defense, brings a number of tools to the table. He's solid against the pass, very good at stopping the run and a sure tackler. Baron also has some nice size at 6'2", 218 lbs.
With the first of two first-round picks in 2012, the Bengals will look to address the cornerback position.
As the top corners—Claiborne and Kirkpatrick—are already off the board, this pick would be between Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard and North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins. Given the Bengals aren't too concerned with character issues, they'd certainly be buyers on the latter and more talented corner, Jenkins.
He has incredible quickness and great body control and is very aggressive on coverage. Jenkins is a very gifted athlete and has potential to be an elite corner in the NFL.
If the Chargers cannot draft an offensive lineman who will be worth their while, they should be looking to upgrade their weak pass rush. San Diego ranked 23rd in sacks. Their inability to consistently get to opposing quarterbacks played a huge factor in their disappointing defense in 2011.
Whitney Mercilus of Illinois would be one of the best available at this point and could help increase the team's sack total. No defensive end in college football was better in 2011 than Mercilus. He racked a gaudy 14.5 sacks in 2011. He has slated his name into the thick of the first round.
San Diego did draft a defensive lineman last year in Corey Liuget. Liuget, however, hasn't quite panned out, as he totaled just one sack in the 2011 season. Perhaps San Diego could draft Liuget's former teammate Mercilus to fix that.
Jay Cutler has yet to work with a legitimate No. 1 wideout during his time in Chicago. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are very lethal weapons. Neither, however, cut it as a top target in the NFL.
So if Michael Floyd is available, expect the Bears to take a very long look at the Notre Dame product.
The 6'3" receiver has done nothing but dazzle during his collegiate years. In his four seasons at South Bend, Floyd never failed to put up less than 700 yards receiving and catch at least seven touchdowns. He raked in a bulky 95 passes this season, eight of them in the end zone.
And although Floyd does carry some off-field baggage, that could be overlooked given his immense talent.
Chicago could also opt for an offensive lineman such as Cordy Glenn or Peter Konz to improve their horrible pass protection. But being that Cutler really needs a top wide receiver, Floyd may be too tempting to pass up.
The Titans may look for some O-line help with their first pick. Melvin Ingram, however, may be much too tempting to pass up for Tennessee, given their poor defensive line play.
Ingram is incredibly athletic, has a good first step and is one of the draft's best pass-rushers. He chalked up 8.5 sacks in 2011 and could help the Titans increase their chances of getting to opposing quarterbacks, a category in which they finished 31st this season.
The Bengals may look to give Andy Dalton some more help with their second first-rounder. If that's the case, Washington's Chris Polk could be the team's second pick.
Polk is beginning to pick up some stock on many big boards as we approach April. He has decent speed and good acceleration and exhibits a very talented running style. The Washington product has a nice combination of speed and strength that could translate very well at the next level.
Polk would presumably replace Cincy's current back, Cedric Benson. Benson will become a free agent at season's end and would not be worth the cash he will be looking for. Luckily for the Bengals, Polk would be a much cheaper and perhaps better alternative to Ced-Ben.
After grabbing Trent Richardson with their first pick this round, the Browns should be looking to nab a wideout. Colt McCoy needs a legitimate target in order to move along his development as a franchise quarterback.
So Kendall Wright of Baylor could be an option here for the Browns. He has great hands, killer speed and the ability to break off big plays. Although I have him as the fourth-best receiver in this draft, many others think of him as perhaps the third or even second alternative to Justin Blackmon.
After watching the Saints and Packers completely dismantle the Lions' secondary in their last two games, there must be something done at the cornerback position. If the Lions want to surpass Green Bay in the NFC North, they must stop their aerial assault.
Alfonzo Dennard has excellent speed and good athleticism and displays great instincts. He does, however, need to improve his reaction on coverage. As well as improving his footwork, he also needs to make better breaks on the ball.
He does need some work but has the tools to be a great corner in the NFL.
James Farrior and James Harrison are getting older, so in order to keep their defense atop the NFL, the Steelers may look for their successors in the upcoming seasons. Vontaze Burfict would be a candidate if available.
He does need work in man-to-man coverage, but he carries the agility to break off blockers and get to the ball. Burfict and his mean streak should fit right in with the hard-nosed attitude of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Broncos could look to upgrade their defensive line after that horrific performance against New England. If that's the direction they choose, LSU's Michael Brockers would be an incredible value.
Although Brockers is still quite raw at the position, many draft experts regard him as the draft's best defensive tackle. He displays great quickness, has very powerful legs and is an overall freakish athlete. The most appealing aspect of his game is his size. Brockers stands at a ridiculous 6'6" and weighs a tad over 300 lbs.
It might take some time for him to develop, but Brockers and his tremendous upside will certainly find a spot in the first round. My only regret about this selection is that Brockers will most likely be taken well before Denver's turn comes around at No. 25.
Houston's offensive line did not receive enough credit this season. They ranked 13th in pass protection this season, allowing just 33 sacks through 16 games.
The problem, however, is the expiring contract of center Chris Myers as well as the right guard position. Although Georgia's Cordy Glenn would not fix the first problem, he would certainly upgrade the second.
Glenn would be a great value selection here. For one, he's just huge, standing at 6'5" and 348 lbs. He is relatively nimble for a man his size and is very good in opening up holes for the run game. Glenn could potentially help Matt Schaub stay healthy and create some space for Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
There is no question that New England's secondary needs some help. They have given up 293.9 passing yards per game and 8.0 yards per attempt.
With the pass defense as their major problem going into the 2012 offseason, New England should look to improve that with South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has nice size and good ball skills and is a very intelligent player. He's just another one of those great corner prospects this deep draft has to offer.
The Packers' defense has been extremely unstable this season. They relinquished the most yards per game this season and only got to the quarterback 29 times, the fifth lowest total in the NFL.
If USC's Nick Perry has a successful combine, he may very well be the pick. Perry exhibits elite speed and great athleticism, uses his hands very well and is extremely versatile.
The great Matt Birk has finally called it quits after a very successful 14-year career in the NFL. That will unfortunately leave a huge hole right in the middle of Baltimore's offensive line.
Although the team could be looking for Ray Lewis' eventual successor in the first round, Wisconsin's Peter Konz would address a more immediate issue.
Konz was a First Team AFCA, CBS and PFW All-American in 2011. The best part of his game is his ability to open holes for the run game, something star running back Ray Rice could really benefit from.
San Francisco's offensive line was their weakest link in 2011. The line finished 26th in pass protection, allowing an unacceptable 44 sacks. This team is obviously ready to compete now and should address this problem before they start their 2012 path to the Super Bowl.
And since the Niners finally seem to have a legitimate quarterback in Alex Smith, they'll need to give him that protection. They could most certainly use Mike Adams to keep Smith off the ground.
Late in the first round, the Ohio State product fills a team need and is the best remaining offensive lineman on the board. Adams will also be appreciated by Frank Gore and the rest of the run-heavy offense in San Fran.
The inside linebacker position is a huge need for the New York Giants, and North Carolina's Zach Brown would provide some stability for Tom Coughlin's defense next season.
Brown can come in and immediately help the Giants. Brown is a sound athlete with the speed and ability to get to opposing ball carriers.
The Patriots could look to boost their defensive line this offseason, making Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State an appealing option in this spot. He is very athletic and uses his great upper body strength to get by offensive linemen.
Cox was also named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week four times in 2011, an honor that shouldn't be taken lightly.