The Senior Bowl has passed and NFL teams continue to stack their draft boards to determine who the best prospects are and which areas will be of biggest need when the free-agent season kicks off March 13.
Once free agency gets rolling it will be a fast and furious ride into the April 26 draft.
It's officially draft season, and with that in mind here is the first offseason look at the top 32 picks of the 2012 NFL draft.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford
Forget any talk that this pick will be anyone other than Andrew Luck—it won't be.
Luck is the quintessential draft prospect, the best covered in my time doing this and the most NFL-ready quarterback to come along since John Elway left Palo Alto in 1983. Luck has it all, and the Indianapolis Colts desperately need him.
Rebuilding a franchise with new management, new coaches and now new players will take patience, but it will also require a player who can lead the franchise and provide a steady hand during these all-important first few years of the rebuilding process.
Luck is the foundation the Colts need to rebuild.
Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor
*Redskins send 2012 first-round, third-round and 2013 first-round picks to St. Louis for pick No. 2
The Washington Redskins have a clear and identifiable need at quarterback. No longer can the franchise hope to win with the Jason Campbells, Donovan McNabbs and Rex Grossmans of the NFL. They need a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Robert Griffin III is that player. Griffin will give head coach Mike Shanahan a true playmaker who can run his offense and also give the entire team a spark.
Look at what Michael Vick did in Atlanta early on, or what Cam Newton and Tim Tebow did in 2011. RG3 has the personality and athleticism to be a leader in the Washington clubhouse, as well as an elite quarterback on the field.
Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, USC
Charlie Johnson could be one of the best people in the NFL, but he's one of the worst left tackles taking the field on Sundays. An upgrade has to be high on the Minnesota Vikings' list of needs this offseason.
At left tackle there is no elite prospect in the 2012 draft class, but Matt Kalil is close. Grading out just below the Joe Thomas or Jake Long-type prospect, Kalil has Day 1 starter material. He's big, solid in both run and pass schemes and has the NFL pedigree that teams love.
If Kalil isn't the pick here in April, it will be shocking.
Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama
The Cleveland Browns are in a position to simply draft the best player available, no matter the position, when their pick comes up. With two choices in the first round, the Browns can use 2012 as a true franchise-building year.
With the first pick the Browns should pick up the best all-around running back prospect since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2011: Trent Richardson.
Richardson's abilities as a runner, receiver and blocker are unparalleled among recent draft prospects. He's a strong runner up the middle, has the speed to turn the corner (see the BCS championship game for proof) and has the third-down capabilities as a runner and blocker to be an elite NFL back from Day 1.
Maybe you don't spend a top-five pick on running backs every year, but when a player this special comes around you draft him.
Morris Claiborne, Cornerback, LSU
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need clarity and consistency at cornerback. To gain this, they'll have to look to the draft for their No. 1 corner.
Ronde Barber has been a mainstay for Tampa, but he's 36 and unsure about retirement. Even if he returns, Barber's 2011 play proved he was no longer a starting cornerback.
Opposite Barber was Aqib Talib, who has an offseason trial scheduled for aggravated assault. Talib cannot be trusted to be an effective member of the Buccaneers in 2012 or moving forward.
Morris Claiborne would be a breath of fresh air for the Bucs' secondary. He's solid in both man and zone schemes, has the size to match up against bigger receivers and can even help out in the kick return game. He's a true triple threat.
Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, South Carolina
*Redskins send 2012 first-round, third-round and 2013 first-round picks to St. Louis for pick No. 2
The St. Louis Rams are in a perfect position to send the No. 2 pick off to a team desperate for Robert Griffin III, receiving in return a bounty of picks to help reload a young roster in dire need of talent and speed.
With Brian Schottenheimer coming to St. Louis to run the offense there is an open book as to what the team will do offensively. Sam Bradford isn't known for his arm strength, but that's partly attributable to the fact he wasn't asked to be a downfield thrower in previous seasons and offenses. With Schottenheimer in town, Bradford can open up the offense and attack the deep levels of the field.
There is no better deep option in the 2012 class than Alshon Jeffery. Having played with a terrible quarterback at South Carolina, Jeffery was still able to make plays deep and in the red zone. He has been slightly inconsistent at times, which keeps him from being an elite prospect, but no wideout in this draft can touch his touchdown-scoring potential.
Justin Blackmon, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
During the 2011 NFL draft the Jacksonville Jaguars selected quarterback Blaine Gabbert, hoping he would become the long-term answer and franchise player. Gabbert's rookie season was rough, but the offense notably lacked talent at wide receiver.
Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson summed it up nicely to the Florida Times-Union back in December:
Those guys are [f--king] jokes. Those guys couldn’t get a [f--king] receiver if it hit them in the head. They haven’t had anyone decent since Jimmy Smith.
Robinson has a point.
The Jaguars need to find a legitimate wideout, and they should use an early pick to find a player who can beat defenders off the line and complement Gabbert's quick-strike ability.
Gabbert is not a quarterback you want hanging in the pocket and trying to throw deep. He comes from a spread offense, similar to the one Justin Blackmon ran in Oklahoma State, and will be at his best feeding the ball to Blackmon early and often.
Michael Brockers, Defensive Tackle, LSU
The Carolina Panthers defense in 2011 was solid. Add in the return of injured linebacker Jon Beason and the group will be significantly better. Add in Michael Brockers, the best of the defensive line prospects in this class, and the Panther defense could be elite.
Brockers' ability to penetrate the offensive line is on par with other top defensive tackle prospects; where he stands out is in his ability to stop the run on his way to the quarterback. Brockers uses his long frame (6'6") to extend from blockers and finds the football better than the other defensive players in this class.
Carolina could go a few directions here, but the smart move is drafting an elite defensive tackle to fuel the defense.
Nick Perry, Defensive End, USC
The Miami Dolphins will make the transition to the 4-3 defense under new head coach Joe Philbin. As seen in recent years (both in Miami under Tony Sparano and Houston under Wade Phillips), when a defensive scheme change is implemented the draft usually reflects that change heavily.
When Sparano took over in Miami the team used two picks in the first three rounds to draft big defensive ends for the 3-4 defense. Likewise, when Phillips took over as defensive coordinator in Houston, the team used six of its seven picks on defense. Expect a similar strategy from Miami.
The first move will be finding a defensive end to line up opposite Cameron Wake. Koa Misi, who was drafted to be an outside linebacker, will likely stay at linebacker. Nick Perry is the best athlete at DE in the 2012 class and also shows the most potential as a double-digit-sack man.
Don't be surprised if Miami reaches for Quinton Coples, however. Coples doesn't register high on my draft board, but he could be a fit at left defensive end.
Melvin Ingram, Defensive End, South Carolina
The Buffalo Bills will finally make the move to a 4-3 defense in 2012. Like the Miami Dolphins, they'll need to spend draft picks to load up the defense.
Buffalo is set at defensive tackle with Kyle Williams and 2011 draftee Marcell Dareus. What they lack are pass-rushers. Shawne Merriman has one year left on his deal, but to date he's been incredibly unpredictable and unproductive. Finding a rush end in the 2012 draft is paramount to the Bills' success.
Melvin Ingram isn't flashy, but he is a fluid athlete who has spent time at defensive tackle, end and outside linebacker. He has the strength to play in line and the quickness to line up on the edge. In Buffalo he will be used in multiple sets and positions to exploit the best matchup.
Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback, North Alabama
The Janoris Jenkins story is a troubling one. Three drug arrests since 2009 led to his removal from the University of Florida football program in the summer of 2011. He landed on his feet at North Alabama, where he dominated lesser competition before resurfacing at the Senior Bowl. Jenkins dominated the crowd there too.
The Seattle Seahawks' situation at cornerback isn't terrible. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner played well above their pay grade in 2011, but can they be counted upon consistently? Long-time starter Marcus Trufant turns 32 in 2012, leaving the door open for the team to try to improve upon his spot as well.
Without a quarterback on the board, Seattle's true need, the team can look to draft the best player available. In this case, Jenkins is both the best player on the board (based on pure talent) but also in a position where Seattle could use an elite player.
David DeCastro, Offensive Guard, Stanford
The Kansas City Chiefs have few needs, especially if they can re-sign wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and cornerback Brandon Carr. If the two free agents are locked up, the Chiefs enter 2012 with very few needs and a healthy roster ready to make a run at the AFC West title.
Kansas City could go toward inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (Alabama) or a right tackle like Riley Reiff (Iowa), but Scott Pioli is more likely to draft the best player available. Adding a guard who ranks higher on my Big Board than any of his predecessors of the last decade makes perfect sense for KC.
DeCastro is as close to "can't-miss" as you'll find at guard. Among the few elite prospects in this class, he could easily find himself drafted in the top 10.
Jonathan Martin, Offensive Tackle, Stanford
Some picks make too much sense to not happen. This is one of them.
The Arizona Cardinals clearly have a need at left tackle. According to Pro Football Focus, Levi Brown gave up 11 sacks and 40 pressures last season. That alone should tell you how important finding a true blindside protector is for the Cardinals.
Martin is a very good athlete, and unlike most college tackles, he's ready to play immediately as a run- and pass-blocker. The Stanford offense has Martin ready for the NFL, where he will be a Day 1 starter.
Courtney Upshaw, Outside Linebacker, Alabama
The Dallas Cowboys have the NFL's best 3-4 outside linebacker in DeMarcus Ware. Opposite him, not so much.
Anthony Spencer is a former first-round pick, but he hasn't played up that billing so far, especially in coverage. Enter Courtney Upshaw.
Upshaw has played all over in the Alabama defense. You can line him up at defensive end, inside linebacker and as an edge rusher. Upshaw is the solid football player type who can fit in any scheme—you just have to make room for him. Dallas will be glad to.
Pairing Upshaw with Ware would give Dallas a linebacking corps ready to rival the San Francisco 49ers in terms of potential and talent.
Zach Brown, Outside Linebacker, North Carolina
Philadelphia's linebacking corps doesn't strike fear in the hearts of any NFL offensive coordinator. They wouldn't even scare some college coordinators.
Nothing against Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney and Akeem Jordan, but they aren't very good. It's still early in their careers, but to date the three aren't exactly giving off vibes of superstar play. There's potential, but a front-loaded team like the Eagles needs to win now.
Zach Brown is the best athlete at linebacker in this year's class. He has the size to play either outside linebacker position in the Eagles defense, but would be a great fit opposite Rolle at strong side. This combination would give Philadelphia the speed to attack the run and cover the slot without safety help.
Whitney Mercilus, Defensive End, Illinois
With 16 sacks in 2011, Whitney Mercilus led the NCAA. His ability to hit the edge, throw off blockers, and keep attacking the quarterback jumps out on film at you.
Mercilus will have to answer questions about the fact that he had just one good season, but teams will be quick to make Aldon Smith comparisons. Both are tall, strong off the line and have the vision to find the ball. Where they differ is in motor.
Smith doesn't give up on a play, while Mercilus hasn't yet developed that reputation. The talent is there, and the New York Jets badly need a pass-rusher at outside linebacker. Mercilus is the best available and a big need.
Cordy Glenn, Offensive Guard, Georgia
According to our good friends at Pro Football Focus, the Cincinnati Bengals' starting offensive guards ranked No. 23 and No. 56 overall, respectively. It's time to make major improvements at guard.
Cordy Glenn impressed at the Senior Bowl with his burst and strength off the line. While some project him at tackle, Glenn has the look of a Pro Bowler at guard. He'll need to work on maintaining leverage, but the rest of the tools are there for Glenn to be a long-time star at the position.
With two picks in the first round thanks to a trade with the Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati can afford to draft for need with pick No. 17.
Riley Reiff, Offensive Tackle, Iowa
The Chargers struck it rich when they signed street free agent Jared Gaither late in the year. Trouble is, Gaither was only signed to a one-year deal. San Diego will try their best to re-sign the mammoth left tackle this offseason.
The need for a left tackle will grow ever stronger if long-time starter Marcus McNeill retires, as has been rumored, due to lingering neck issues. It's also possible that if McNeill doesn't retire, he'll be released.
Even if Gaither comes back, San Diego can look to right tackle. Jeromey Clary ranked No. 74 among all tackles when graded by Pro Football Focus. An upgrade is a serious need.
Reiff, a former tight end, has the athletic ability to play either left or right tackle. He's strong enough at the point of attack to make an impact in the run game and is quick enough to slide out and protect the edge.
Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame
The Chicago Bears have two needs they badly need to address this offseason: wide receiver and offensive line. With their first pick they finally make a move to get the No. 1 wideout Jay Cutler has always lacked in Chicago.
Floyd has the hands, size and run-after-catch skills to be drafted much higher than this. Were it not for off-field issues (three arrests since 2009), Floyd could be much higher on my board. Combine that with some lazy route-running at times and Floyd's value lies closer to No. 19 overall.
There's no doubting he's talented, and staying close to home with the Bears may help Floyd stay grounded. If so, he can become the star Cutler needs at receiver.
Quinton Coples, Defensive End, North Carolina
A quick refresher on Quinton Coples, and a bit of a comparison.
Coples had 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss in 2010, putting him high on early draft boards. Coples' 2011 season was less impressive, with just 7.5 sacks, troubles against the double-team and completely disappearing at times. The difference? In 2010 Coples played defensive tackle; in 2011 he was at defensive end.
Now for a comparison.
|Mel Kiper (ESPN)||No. 7|
|Todd McShay (ESPN)||No. 3|
|Bucky Brooks (NFL Network)||No. 7|
|Matt Miller (B/R)||No. 30|
Clearly we're seeing different things. My ranking of Coples is based on 2010 and 2011 film study. It's hard to gauge potential, and with a non-self-starter like Coples it is dangerous to even speculate how he'll perform with NFL paychecks on the regular.
If the other pundits are right, Coples will be a steal here. If they aren't, he's closer to a true value for the pass-rush-needy Tennessee Titans.
Lamar Miller, Running Back, Miami (FL)
While Chris Polk has been a favorite of mine recently, it's hard to see Lamar Miller being passed over once the NFL scouting combine has passed.
Miller is a phenomenal athlete, and he'll be an eye-popping star at the workouts. Miller's speed, burst and agility will make him one of the biggest winners at the combine.
Cincinnati has favored power backs in the past, but there's no reason they couldn't pair Miller with Bernard Scott for a true one-two punch capable of throwing off defenses on any given play.
Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver, Baylor
The Cleveland Browns will use their second first-round pick to find a wide receiver to pair with 2011 draftee Greg Little. Kendall Wright would answer the prayers of a large number of Browns fans.
Wright's ability to separate from defenders makes him a fit in any offense, but his run-after-catch skills will be particularly useful in Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense. Here he will be timing his quick routes with Colt McCoy, who does a nice job leading his receivers to allow for yards after catch.
McCoy may not be a fan favorite in Cleveland, but he's a much better option than a reach here for any of the remaining quarterback prospects.
Mike Adams, Offensive Tackle, Ohio State
Jeff Backus allowed seven sacks and 36 pressures in 2011, and will be 35 years old three weeks into the 2012 season. The Lions can start planning for a future without the long-time starter.
When meeting Mike Adams at the Senior Bowl, my first thought was that he's the largest human being I've ever met. Adams blocks out the sun at 6'7" and 325 pounds, but he moves well for the position. His footwork was better than expected, and a good combine could push Adams even higher up the board.
Detroit would be glad to have a young stud protecting Matthew Stafford's blind side.
Kelechi Osemele, Offensive Guard, Iowa State
One of the players who impressed the most at the Senior Bowl, Kelechi Osemele has moved back into the first round of my big board and should hear his name called on Day 1 of the 2012 NFL draft.
Osemele has been talked about as a potential tackle, but he projects best at left guard, which is where the Pittsburgh Steelers have a major need. Osemele would be asked to step in immediately and flank Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey.
A minor move like this could easily put Pittsburgh back on track to take the AFC North in 2012.
Chris Polk, Running Back, Washington
The Denver Broncos could go any number of directions with their first selection. The team could look for a cornerback to replace Champ Bailey. They could draft a center and boot J.D. Walton. They could shock us all and draft a quarterback. Or they could try to build a solid team around Mr. Tim Tebow.
If the team plans to utilize the option on offense in 2012, it will need to draft a running back who can effectively run with Tebow. That's where Chris Polk comes in.
Polk has the size, strength and patience to run between the tackles. He also has the burst to hit open space and run away from defenders. Add in his receiving abilities and there is no way the Broncos find a better option at running back than Polk.
Mohamed Sanu, Wide Receiver, Rutgers
If you are looking for an under-the-radar player who will catapult his stock with a strong scouting combine, look no further than Mohamed Sanu. The Rutgers wide receiver is an all-purpose terror whom NFL scouts will soon fall in love with.
In Houston, Sanu could become the No. 2 option opposite Andre Johnson. His strength off the line and open-space speed could cause defenses to respect the other side of the field, effectively freeing up Johnson, Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen.
Sanu isn't a marquee name now, but remember him once the draft rolls around.
Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, South Carolina
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick loves football players. And I mean that in the sense that he wants guys who are versatile, love the game and are more than track stars in pads. Stephon Gilmore should catch Belichick's eye.
During his three years at South Carolina, Gilmore started at cornerback, returned punts and kicks, completed two passes (2-of-3 for 68 yards), had eight interceptions, and seven sacks. A complete football player is what Stephon Gilmore is, and then some.
Don't be surprised if Gilmore's name starts to rise in the national spotlight as the draft nears. He has the all-around game to be a star.
Jamell Fleming, Cornerback, Oklahoma
A two-year starter at Oklahoma, Jamell Fleming was among the biggest winners from the 2012 Senior Bowl. While in Mobile he showed the press man skills to be an instant starter in the NFL. His seven interceptions at Oklahoma show he can break on the ball and make plays with it once he's there.
Fleming would be asked to step in and kick-start Charles Woodson's transition to free safety. Fleming would jump in and play opposite Tramon Williams, keeping Sam Shields in the slot, where Shields is best suited.
Vontaze Burfict, Inside Linebacker, Arizona State
Vontaze Burfict remains one of the scariest college football players I've ever scouted during my 10 years. He's also the only player I have ever red-flagged for "on-field issues."
For Burfict to be successful in the NFL he will need a stronger leader than Dennis Erickson was at Arizona State. Ray Lewis more than qualifies.
Burfict can be eased in, starting his career behind Lewis and learning from the future Hall of Famer along with Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. There truly is no better atmosphere for a talented but troubled player to start his career.
Rueben Randle, Wide Receiver, LSU
The San Francisco 49ers have work to do in free agency, which could affect the direction they take with their first-round choice. Once Alex Smith is re-signed at quarterback they will move on to re-signing cornerback Carlos Rogers. If Rogers cannot be re-signed, cornerback immediately becomes a pressing need the team may address in Round 1.
Assuming Rogers is back in 2012, and he should be, the 49ers can start to add new options at wide receiver for Smith. Rueben Randle is flying under the radar of the media currently, but by March he won't be.
Randle played with horrible quarterback situations at LSU, making his statistics pale in comparison to Justin Blackmon or Kendall Wright, but the talent is there for Randle to be a No. 1 NFL wideout.
Dont'a Hightower, Linebacker, Alabama
Dont'a Hightower is a curious player. There are times when he jumps off the film at you, like in the BCS championship game. Other times he disappears, leaving Courtney Upshaw and Nico Johnson to pick up the slack at linebacker.
What's certain is that Hightower has incredible talent. Should the Patriots keep their second first-round pick, and historically they do not, it's likely Bill Belichick will look to his old friend Nick Saban's defense and pluck Hightower.
Hightower has the athletic ability to play inside or outside linebacker, depending on the scheme. As much as the Patriots switch back and forth between the 3-4 and 4-3, Hightower would easily find a spot in the starting rotation.
Orson Charles, Tight End, Georgia
The New York Giants expect their top two tight ends—Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum—to both open the 2012 season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list after both suffered torn ACLs in the Super Bowl. Even before this news, tight end was a need for the Giants.
Ballard had a very good 2011 season, but he's not a threat to make big plays after the catch. Ballard is your classic tight end who can pick up seven to eight yards before taking a big hit. Orson Charles fits the new breed of tight end who can catch a seven-yard pass and turn it into a 30-yard gain.
Charles isn't a great blocker, but that can be taught. Just look at Vernon Davis, who was a horrible blocker early in his career and is now one of the best. Charles is very similar to Davis physically and could have a similar impact on the New York offense.