With the regular season now long since passed and the Super Bowl decided weeks ago, the final big event to come before many of us enter football hibernation and begin suffering massive NFL withdraws is creeping ever closer.
Free agency and the days leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft on April 26 are sure to make this offseason as hectic, exciting and potentially heartbreaking as any of those before it.
Here is a look at what the first 32 picks of this year’s draft could possibly look like as free agency enters its very early stages.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford
If there is one single certainty in this draft, it is Andrew Luck.
I am not saying that because I believe he is the best quarterback prospect ever—obviously that honor belongs to JaMarcus Russell—or that there is no chance he will fail. I say that because we all know he will be the first name called come prime time that particular Thursday.
Frankly, the “best quarterback prospect ever” has been flashed with almost reckless abandon over the years. More often than not, that same guy bestowed with instant greatness finds himself on the tail end of an average career, on the bench or out of the league entirely.
I like everything I have seen out of Luck at Stanford. He makes impressive reads, moves much better than one would think and places the ball in the right spot every time without fail.
But being successful takes little more than having all the right "moves."
The Colts are rebuilding, Peyton Manning will soon walk—whether that means join another franchise or retire I have no clue—and it is going to take a bit more than Luck (pun intended) to turnaround a team that had always been a playoff mainstay because of Peyton alone.
Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, Southern California
This is not the sexy pick or the pick most fans were looking for. But Sam Bradford was sacked 36 times last year—in just 10 games. When upright Bradford has the potential to be a very productive quarterback. But let us be honest, he is not the most durable guy in the league.
The free-agency market looks to be stocked with receivers more than capable of upgrading a poor unit and Brandon Lloyd has softened his stance on leaving since the hiring of Jeff Fisher. It may also be worth noting that while Lloyd should be considered a legitimate No. 1 receiver in this league he happens to be 31 and will almost certainly price himself out of New England whether he wants to follow Josh McDaniels or not.
Since 2001 there has been 14 receivers taken in the Top 10 and of that group only three have proven worthy. I do not know about you but Justin Blackmon does not quite look like a Calvin Johnson, an Andre Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald to me. It is also worth noting that Dez Bryant managed similar production to Blackmon yet has failed to break the 1000-yard mark in two years catching balls from stat-master Tony Romo in Dallas.
Matt Kalil is about as close to a sure thing as it gets. He is highly touted by scouts across the board for his physical tools and technique, something the Rams dearly need. Most important he is no Jason Smith, who was considerably raw in every regard from a technique standpoint but boasted incredibly rare athleticism.
Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor
With Matt Kalil gone, the Minnesota Vikings will be looking to trade down for better value. This is the perfect scenario for a Redskins team just itching for a chance to leap ahead of the Cleveland Browns who have the very next pick.
Last September, Mike Shanahan and company went into the regular season with an air of extreme yet grossly unfounded confidence in their quarterback situation. Why it took the Shanahan duo so long to figure out that Rex Grossman and John Beck were better off on the bench on game day and only throwing passes in practice is beyond my comprehension. But here we are.
Robert Griffin III accomplished some amazing things at Baylor surrounded by a cast of relative unknowns outside of receiver Kendall Wright. Griffin is an amazing athlete, but in watching him his mentality is what makes him special. While he racked up some major numbers on the ground, Griffin had no problem delivering perfect passes from the pocket or reading what was in front of him.
I think picking a quarterback is always a gamble but the charismatic Heisman Trophy-winner is worth the risk. The Redskins need someone to run the offense through and there likely will not be any real options in free agency. If Peyton Manning returns to the NFL I highly doubt he would sign for a team in Eli’s division for obvious reasons and Mike Flynn should do all he can (if he is smart) to follow his former offensive coordinator to Miami.
Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama
For all the talk about Andrew Luck, Trent Richardson is the most talented and safest prospect in this entire draft. From day one he is fully capable of asserting himself among the best backs in the league by nature of the position whereas Luck will undoubtedly need time to progress.
To put it simply Richardson; can run inside, outside, around you and through you. But beyond his obvious ability to tote the rock he boasts soft hands and great blocking technique.
He is the sort of complete back that you no longer often see in the NFL, much less one that comes straight out of college.
Since returning to the league as an expansion team in 1999, the Browns have made just one playoff appearance and not managed anything close to consistent progress in a very difficult division.
After the disappointment of Peyton Hillis’ performance last season amid contract disputes, injury and illness, it would be wise to opt for the better prospect and allow Hillis to walk. Mike Holmgren has never selected a quarterback very high and Cleveland cannot afford to pass on the best talent available.
The best option is to surround quarterback Colt McCoy with some legitimate weapons, grant him an entire offseason of preparation and see what happens in 2012. Given the time, I do not see any reason why McCoy cannot develop into a Matt Hasselbeck-like performer in this offense.
Morris Claiborne, CB, Louisiana State
After going 10-6 in 2010, the Buccaneers came into 2011 with a horde of expectations. Expectations that they initially met sitting atop the division tied with the New Orleans Saints at 4-1.
But that moment at the top would be quickly followed by one of the greatest collapses and horrendous flame-outs of any team in recent memory losing 10 games straight often by embarrassing margins.
Quarterback Josh Freeman took a huge step backwards throwing just 16 touchdowns to 22 interceptions after going 25 and 6 the year before. The defense lacked all kinds of discipline and at times looked completely incapable of tackling anyone.
Freeman’s regression should be attributed to a line composed of only two sure-fire starters (Donald Penn and Davin Joseph) and absolutely no one capable of stretching the field.
Tampa Bay must focus on improving its defense so Freeman no longer has to force passes downfield playing catch-up. Ronde Barber is contemplating retirement and is no longer suited to the starting corner role at 37, Aqib Talib may not even return amid gun charges and the rest of the players on the roster do not possess the man-coverage skills new head coach Greg Schiano needs.
Morris Claiborne is a complete corner prospect; adept in man or zone, possesses prototypical size, 4.40 speed, hands to make the big play and sound tackling ability. With Brandon Carr likely to be re-signed by the Kansas City Chiefs and Brent Grimes desiring the kind of money no 29-year-old corner should warrant, Claiborne makes sense for numerous reasons.
Justin Blackmon, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
After the selection of USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil, the Vikings will see more value in trading down with the Washington Redskins. The move will garner addition picks and allow them to select either of their preferred targets—LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon—that fall to the sixth spot.
I believe Justin Blackmon, the preferred choice, will be the player available come their pick.
It goes without saying that the offensive line needs to be improved as does the secondary. But Adrian Peterson’s serious injury makes the acquisition of skill position players the most pressing need.
Blackmon is the best player available at this point, who, if paired with current Viking’s receiver Percy Harvin, will provide Christian Ponder with an impressive tandem to work with.
Most players take at least an entire year to regain their full-form following the sort of injury Peterson suffered. Greater weapons on the outside will force defenses to respect the passing threat and not crowd the line as in the past in what will very likely be a difficult year for the All-Pro back.
Devin Aromashodu and Michael Jenkins do not scare anyone in this league so Blackmon becomes integral to the Vikings success going forward.
Quinton Coples, Defensive End, North Carolina
With top-target Justin Blackmon now off the board, the Jaguars will be forced to address the defensive side of the ball.
Last season the defense played amazingly despite receiving absolutely no support from the offense outside of Maurice Jones-Drew. But 32-year-old defensive end Aaron Kampman is not going to be around forever and sack-leader Jeremy Mincey seems likely to test the market.
There are varying opinions of Quinton Coples’ motor and ability to get at the quarterback after a decline in sack numbers—which I attribute to a change of position this past year.
But the defensive end is an absolute stud and showed at the Senior Bowl. His lateral quickness could be better but his overall athleticism and raw power at the point of attack make him a worthy Top Five prospect completely capable of being dominant in every facet of the game.
Michael Brockers, Defensive Tackle, Louisiana State
The Panthers allowed over 130-yards on the ground per game last season and, without a valid option to address the need at cornerback opposite Chris Gamble, it makes all the more sense to address the need for a big, strong force in the middle.
Carolina invested a pair of third-round picks on defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain in order to shore up the middle. But the duo did not perform nearly to the level expected. However, Fua did show some promise but it has become clear that McClain is more suited to a reserve or rotational role on the line.
Michael Brockers is a somewhat troubling prospect due to his inexperience but all indications are that he is only going to improve and does not come with the substantial injury history of Penn State’s Devon Still. In my opinion, either of the two are a gamble for different reasons but I personally prefer Brockers as he appears to be the more explosive with the greater potential of the two.
Riley Reiff, Offensive Tackle, Iowa
Defensive end Quinton Coples would have been a perfect fit in Miami’s new 4-3 scheme opposite Cameron Wake but he is no longer available. There are still a number of quality defensive ends remaining on the board but in Coples’ absence and Riley Reiff’s availability the priority becomes replacing Marc Colombo at right tackle.
Colombo may be a mountain of a man but he has never amounted to much more then that since being drafted by the Bears in the first round years ago. He does not have the feet to pass protect against defensive ends with any semblance of speed and constantly loses leverage in the run game which is quite surprising given his sheer size.
Throughout Reiff’s career at Iowa he has displayed solid technique and ability as both a run and pass blocker. But his lateral agility and general nimbleness for his size is what truly makes him standout as a top prospect.
If Miami were to re-sign guard Vernon Carey and place Reiff opposite Jake Long on the right side, the Dolphins would instantly have one of the better units in football.
Regardless of who is going to be standing in the pocket come next season they will appreciate the extra protection.
Whitney Mercilus, Defensive End, Illinois
If Dave Wannstedt’s appointment as defensive coordinator was not enough to make you think so, Chan Gailey’s own admissions have effectively brought an end to the Bills’ foray into the world of hybrid defenses.
So as of the present all indications are that they will be running a pure 4-3 defense up in Buffalo in 2012. A formation they are much better equipped to use inconsideration of their current squad which lacks anything close to a true 3-4 outside linebacker. However, the move does require the acquisition of a pass-rushing defensive end to place on the right opposite of Spencer Johnson.
The consensus pick here appears to be Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw; I completely disagree because of the transition away from the hybrid defense and 3-4 sets used in the past. Upshaw has shown that he has the versatility to play with his hand in the dirt but he does not quite fit within the scheme and would likely never play to his potential operating from the three-point stance.
Enter Whitney Mercilus who led the entire NCAA with 14.5 sacks this past season. Mercilus can just move, he is downright explosive with a non-stop motor and has a knack for the big play.
To go with his nation-leading sacks, he made 52 tackles (19.5 for loss) and forced an astounding nine fumbles. As an avid Buccaneers fan, I cannot help but see the similarities between him and former Fighting Illini Simeon Rice.
Unlike Upshaw, the opinion of Mercilus is considerably varied among experts. But I believe the workouts to come which will allow him to showcase some of that athletic superiority will send him flying up teams’ draft boards.
Jonathan Martin, Offensive Tackle, Stanford
The Chiefs are going to be a surprise team in 2012 because they really are not nearly as bad as this past season would have everyone believe.
After losing a number of key starters to injury—quarterback Matt Cassel, running back Jamaal Charles, and safety Eric Berry—Kansas City just nosedived about halfway through the season. Former head coach Todd Haley’s tough guy act eventually not only cost him the locker room but his job too.
Under interim head coach Romeo Crennel, the Chiefs actually showed enough fight and improvement for the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator—let us forget his time in Cleveland—to land the job on a permanent basis.
Kansas City has the most favorable cap situation in the NFL right now—about $60 million and change—so there is little question that Brandon Carr and Dwayne Bowe will be retained. Comparing their cap situation to other notable 3-4 teams in need of a nose tackle—the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers—I see the Chiefs having very little competition for the signature of Miami Dolphins castaway Paul Soliai.
Whether they manage to make that signing or not, Jonathan Martin is going to be the choice here.
Free-agent Barry Richardson was a horrible right tackle and Brandon Albert has never quite looked comfortable on the left side. Martin can be slotted in on the left from day one and Albert either transitioned to right tackle or one of the guard spots—where he may be a much better fit.
Whatever the exact course of action the Chiefs must seek to upgrade an offensive line unit that stands to lose veteran center Casey Wiegmann to retirement.
Courtney Upshaw, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Alabama
Contrary to popular belief, the Seahawks will not be scrambling to reach for any quarterbacks early in the draft or taking a gamble on one-time Florida standout cornerback Janoris Jenkins. None of the quarterbacks have the value or rating to validate a first-round selection and Jenkins is not the type of tall press-coverage corner that head coach Pete Carroll prefers.
The Seahawks’ defense took a huge step forward last year but did not generate nearly the amount of pressure they would have liked to. Raheem Brock offered nothing in relief to lone legitimate pass rushing threat Chris Clemons—who turns 31 this year.
Courtney Upshaw would be a perfect fit in Seattle’s defense which could be called a 3-4 masquerading as an off-set 4-3 defense. Four men may be down with their hand in the dirt but the responsibilities of the front seven is much more similar to that of the standard 3-4. Something that makes it all the more important for the team to generate a strong pass rush from the three standing linebackers and Clemons from right defensive end.
It remains to be seen whether Upshaw would be a better fit as a strongside linebacker or maybe in relief of the elder Clemons in this particular setup. But he would be a huge addition regardless.
USC's Nick Perry is another option here. But I believe Upshaw has the better all-around game and this would not be the first time Carroll snubbed a USC player.
David DeCastro, Offensive Guard, Stanford
Quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton took a beating last season, totaling 53 sacks between them over the regular season. The offensive line has never been an area of strength in Arizona but the quality has fallen off since the retirement of Kurt Warner. Most of that can be attributed to Warner’s extensive knowledge of the offense, quick decision-making skills and one of the quickest releases in the NFL which served to masked the issue.
Levi Brown finally showed some improvement but the right side of the line is still very much lacking in talent. I believe offensive tackle Jonathan Martin would have been the preferred pick up but Stanford teammate David DeCastro can step in immediately to solidify the right guard position lending to some semblance of balance across the line.
I highly doubt the Cardinals are ready to scrap Kolb after just a single season. So adding protection and a viable receiving option to play opposite Larry Fitzgerald is critical this offseason.
I would not be surprised to see Arizona select Alabama's Courtney Upshaw if he were to fall to them.
Nick Perry, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Southern California
In the past, Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones had never been scared to take risks on talented players with character concerns. But following the failure that was the "Pacman Jones Experiment" and amid problems stemming from Dez Bryant's lack of maturity, Jones would be right to reassess his approach.
Despite the obvious needs in the secondary prospects like Janoris Jenkins and Dre Kirkpatrick—who has been cleared of drug-related charges—will likely be overlooked.
Dallas desperately needs someone to rush the passer opposite DeMarcus Ware and with Courtney Upshaw no longer available Nick Perry easily becomes the best option. Quick and explosive, Perry has some trouble disengaging from lineman but he will likely not face as many obstacles with Ware sharing the field.
Although upgrades and changes definitely must be made to the secondary, beefing up the pass rush will also help.
Devon Still, Defensive Tackle, Penn State
Andy Reid has never selected a linebacker in the first-round and I do not see him bucking that trend anytime soon.
Was the linebacker core bad last season? Not just bad, it was awful but the unit is young and Reid has always been far more successful snatching linebackers from the free-agency market than drafting them.
Conversely, Reid has never shied away from selecting defensive tackles very high in the draft. With a number of guys available to be free agents—Derek Landri, Trevor Laws and Antonio Dixon—and questions surrounding the health of Mike Patterson due to a seizure he suffered last August the position has become a more pressing need than linebacker.
Overcoming injury problems Still returned to Penn State to have an incredible year only marred by the Jerry Sandusky trial and removal of head coach Joe Paterno. His great size, raw power and an unexpected burst to the ball helped him record 55 tackles (17 for loss), 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his senior season.
Still is considerably stout against the run and his addition could very well give the Eagles one of the best defensive lines in football.
Melvin Ingram, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, South Carolina
The Jets’ pass rush was so bad last season that perennial bust Aaron Maybin came out of absolutely nowhere to lead the entire team in sacks—notching an impressive (key gross sarcasm) six—before teams began figuring out the former Penn State star.
Injuries to key players eventually left the usually hyper-aggressive Rex Ryan defense a mere shadow of what it had been the seasons before. Without the support of the great defense everyone had become so accustom to, the offense choked and the entire team fell apart from the locker room out.
Chemistry is a fickle thing and while the apparent issues on the team need to be tended, to the bust-ups would never have happened had the team not begun to struggle for a myriad of reasons.
Melvin Ingram is not just the typical pass rusher; he has all the potential to be a game-breaker from the 3-4 outside linebacker spot. Although hampered by injury last season, Ingram still managed to log a respectable 44 tacklers (13.5 for loss), 8.5 sacks, defense two passes, and snag two interceptions. Even more impressive is his scoring record; he returned two recovered fumbles back for six and ran 68-yards for another score on a fake punt just last season alone.
Ingram is a tremendous athlete with the speed and strength to line up and be supremely effective at any position within the front seven.
Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback, North Alabama/Florida
Janoris Jenkins could very possibly be the best pure cover-corner prospect in this entire draft. But a number of drug related missteps had him dismissed from Florida in January 2011.
Forced to transfer to Division II program North Alabama—who coincidentally enough, also recruited former Florida State problem child and playmaker Preston Parker—Jenkins has since turned his entire life around.
While other teams may overlook Jenkins, the Bengals will likely give the young man a shot at true redemption on the national stage. I believe he would have landed in Cincinnati anyway but Nate Clements turning 32 years old and top corner Leon Hall appearing likely to miss the majority, if not all, of 2012 just made the need for a cornerback more pressing.
Had Jenkins avoided trouble, his incredible speed, world-class agility and coverage skills would have likely earned him a Top Five selection.
Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback, Alabama
Much like the Jets, the Chargers pass rush just looked anemic or absent entirely at times. Shaun Phillips struggled with injuries and Larry English continued to disappoint. But San Diego did manage to make a great signing in outside linebacker Antwan Barnes, who led the team with 11 sacks.
Expecting that the front seven will return to form with time to regain their health—namely Phillips who had just come off an 11 sack year in 2010—and left tackle Jared Gaither is retained to protect quarterback Philip Rivers’ blindside, the team should address the secondary.
Until last year Quentin Jammer had been one of the better corners in the league. But time has stripped him of the quickness required to play the position. He may finally make the transition to free safety slotting in next to Eric Weddle; a move that would not only effectively prolong Jammer’s career but fill a big void as well.
I have some reservations over whether Dre Kirkpatrick has the ability to play corner in this league as he appears to be a fit at safety.
But San Diego’s system would play to his strengths. The Chargers prefer physical guys with the ability to press receivers and make solid tackles on ball carriers, two things Kirkpatrick has absolutely no problem doing.
Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, South Carolina
Jay Cutler needs someone to throw the ball to. Period.
Johnny Knox is a second option at best. Roy Williams looks more like the former Dallas Cowboys and Oklahoma safety of the same name than the often spectacular receiver that use to catch passes in Detroit. Earl Bennett has the best hands on the team but cannot stay on the field. Devin Hester needs to go back to just fielding kicks where he is at his absolute best.
Alshon Jeffery really is a boom or bust pick with what has to be one of the worst bodies at his position in college football. To be fair, the pick was supposedly taken prior to the season and even NFL players tend to "balloon up" up a bit.
But the guy has all the talent in the world to dominate on any level. He is not incredibly fast or an impeccably good route runner but he tracks the ball well in the air, makes fantastic breaks and cannot be disturbed even when marked by multiple defenders.
Jeffery never had the benefit of consistent quarterback play and his situation only got worse when South Carolina dismissed starter Stephen Garcia midway through 2011. That change did not stop Jeffery from catching four balls for 148 yards and a touchdown opposite highly-touted Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in less than three complete quarters of play.
There is not another receiver in this draft with the kind of raw ability that Alshon Jeffery has. But he must show more commitment to preparation in order to fulfill his potential.
Peter Konz, Center, Wisconsin
Any offensive line that Chris Johnson cannot effectively run behind needs to be replaced. The effort to retool the line will begin with free agency but hinge on the acquisition of Wisconsin center Peter Konz.
Konz is an excellent blocker with tremendous strength. He pass protects quite well, can pick up defenders at the second level and has no problem putting guys on their backs.
Typically centers do not go this high but Konz has the ability and intelligence to make a seemingly average group perform at a much higher level.
Tennessee can go in a variety of directions with this pick but the priority should be to provide Johnson with blockers more capable of providing running lanes and adequate enough protection for oft-injured veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to stay on the field for at least another full season.
Cordy Glenn, Offensive Guard, Georgia
Cedric Benson’s steady decline and lack quickness hid the fact that Cincinnati had one of the better offensive lines in the NFL last season, a group that was particularly formidable in the run game.
As of now both of the Bengals’ starting guards are free agents. Bobbie Williams had a solid season in the trenches but is very near the end at 35 years old and Nate Livings was unarguably the weakest starter of the five. Even in the likely event that Williams does return, the Bengals must find a talented young player for the long-term.
Apart from a very disappointing first outing against Boise State, Cordy Glenn, a natural offensive guard, dominated the opposition playing at left tackle in his senior year. Even stronger than one would expect of a 346 pound behemoth, Glenn would thrive applying his trade in Cincinnati's power blocking scheme.
Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver, Baylor
Kendall Wright is the game-changing type of receiver the Browns hoped Josh Cribbs would eventually become, But the latter just does not have the hands or run the precise routes needed to be a top target in the NFL. Something that should not come as too much of a surprise considering he was originally a quarterback.
Wright effectively becomes part two of the “2012 Cleveland Weapons Program” which had them snatch up future All-Pro Trent Richardson with their first pick in the draft. His height at 5’10” can be considered somewhat of a detractor depending on who you ask. But he is much stronger than his frame suggests and easily the most explosive among receiver prospects with a first-round rating.
Wright's skill set will play the perfect foil to a cast of possession receivers all over 6'2" and effectively stretch the field.
Mike Adams, Offensive Tackle, Ohio State
Detroit’s offensive line is getting on in years and with Mike Adams available, it seems no better time than now to replace long-time left tackle Jeff Backus. The future of the Lions lies with the health of franchise quarterback Matt Stafford.
When healthy and paired with Calvin Johnson, Detroit easily places itself among the most potent offenses in the league. But Stafford has ended two of his three pro seasons on the injured reserve.
Large, rangy, nimble and powerful enough to engulf defenders, Adams is NFL-ready. He may have trouble with the the more talented pass-rushers in this league early on but Adams youthful assets make him an upgrade over Backus.
Dontari Poe, Nose Tackle, Memphis
With Casey Hampton, who will be coming off his third ACL surgery, likely to be cap casualty due to his $8 million cap number and Chris Hoke’s retirement, the Steelers have an immense need at nose tackle.
It goes without saying that Hampton is not the same incredible player he was years ago. He is no longer able to take on double-teams in the same way he once had, but he remained an integral part of the NFL’s best defense. With him unlikely to return and the franchise completely cash-strapped, the only option the Steelers will have is to draft Hampton’s successor.
Dontari Poe is far and away the best 3-4 nose tackle prospect in this year’s draft. He is a space-eater who takes on multiple blocks and allows the players around him to work more freely. He is not on the same level Hampton was coming out of college but Poe is a raw talent with plenty of room to improve.
Lamar Miller, Running Back, Miami
Regardless of Tim Tebow’s future in Denver this offense needs more weapons to be successful.
Knowshon Moreno has been in the league for three seasons but has not managed to do anything remotely memorable since leaping over a defender back at Georgia. Granted that is a bit hard to top but the real problem is that Moreno has not demonstrated the ability to stay healthy and has missed a total of 12 games in the past two seasons.
Willis McGahee managed to have a very successful year but he wore down late in the season and cannot be expected to carry the load or be the answer at 30 years old.
The Broncos need a brand-new set of wheels.
One of the most dynamic backs in college football last season, Lamar Miller was a threat to score on any given touch. The Broncos will need a back like Miller in order to compensate for their lack of consistent success moving the ball through the air and to aid in Tebow’s development.
Coach John Fox also has a penchant for picking running backs fairly high. During a stretch from 2002 to 2008 Fox selected four backs within the top 34 picks of the draft—DeShaun Foster, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame
If you watched the playoffs—or any game for that matter—last season you could literally watch rookie quarterback T.J. Yates lock onto All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson on any given play.
In his defense, he really did not have much of a choice. Prior to injury Houston’s starting quarterback Matt Schaub was much better at looking off safeties and spreading the ball around. But the Texans can no longer ignore the need for a proper receiver to complement Johnson.
Michael Floyd has a world of talent and could easily be selected earlier in the draft by either the Chicago Bears or Cleveland Browns. But he will likely find himself off the board close to the end of the first-round amid character concerns.
The defense could stand to acquire a player more befitting of the nose tackle role but no one available grades out nearly high enough to warrant a pick this high in the draft. Look for the Texans to select Alameda Ta’amu (Washington) or Josh Chapman (Alabama) somewhere in the next three rounds.
Mark Barron, Safety, Alabama
New England had the second-worst pass defense in the entire NFL last season. A great deal of the failures of the secondary had to do with a lack of consistent pressure on the quarterback but there is little denying that the Patriots’ safeties were downright awful last season.
Following the unexpected release of safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders entering last season, the unit instantly became short on talent, experience and leadership. Three important factors that may have been shored up through the rumored signing of 14-year veteran Darren Sharper before 2011 but the move never materialized.
This year’s safety class is regrettably thin—paper thin may be too generous—but Mark Barron is very much the real deal coming out of Alabama. Young yet instantly capable of providing the sort of leadership in the secondary that New England has been missing since Rodney Harrison.
More of the smash-mouth in your face strong safety type to Patrick Chung’s playmaking freelancer role, Barron has a great understanding of pro-style 3-4 defenses and is capable of making a play downfield himself.
Jerel Worthy, Defensive Tackle/Defensive End, Michigan State
With the more well-regarded outside linebacker prospects now off the board, defensive tackle Jerel Worthy represents the best value nearing the end of the first round.
Last season the Packers vaunted pass rush was not exactly what it had been the year before, never coming close to the form displayed during the later stages of their Super Bowl run. It appears as though the loss of Cullen Jenkins had a legitimate effect of the rest of the defense.
Opponents were able to focus on Clay Matthews—limiting him to six sacks, down from 13.5—constantly delaying the linebacker’s entry into the backfield.
Without an interior presence with the ability to penetrate into the backfield using a combination of finesse and power moves, the entire line became stagnant. Not only where teams able to focus on Matthews but B.J. Raji was double-teamed constantly, something that no other player on the field was able to take real advantage of.
Worthy will more than likely dropped due to questionable motor but he has all the right skills and proper players around him to make the transition to 3-4 defensive end. He has the potential to provide the kind of interior pass rush and overall dominating performances that even Jenkins never could.
Vontaze Burfict, Inside Linebacker, Arizona State
Vontaze Burfict is by no means perfect but the guy has the right kind of nasty attitude and upside to be a major success in this league. Playing next to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis should only increase his chances of reaching his potential.
Frankly speaking, Burfict is by all accounts a bit of a head case severely lacking in any discipline on the field and the target of pretty falling yellow flags across the country. But to his credit, the young inside linebacker has tried to play under more control.
The Ravens appear to be the only team equipped to take such an early chance on him featuring players on defense who will immediately gain his respect such as Lewis, former Sun Devil Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed.
Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, South Carolina
Under Jim Harbaugh the 49ers became an entirely different team made up of pretty much all the same faces. Most of us knew San Francisco had talent on defense with cornerstone players like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith already in place.
But Harbaugh managed to get the best out of everyone and make a few savvy moves in free agency.
One of these moves was signing veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers to a one-year deal last offseason. Rogers had never quite lived up to his billing as a Top Ten pick with the Redskins and quickly found himself out of favor with the Shanahan regime.
But this season, with some help from one of the better pass-rushes in the NFL and a stone-hands miracle cure, Rogers snagged not only a career-high six interceptions but his first Pro Bowl appearance as well. Unfortunately, his performance last season, resulting contract demands and age (31) will lead to him donning a new uniform come next season.
Stephon Gilmore would immediately be able to come in and replace him. The South Carolina corner is a talented press coverage guy who excels playing in a zone system. He does not get himself into trouble and is a real student of the game who knows not only his but others’ assignment on every play.
What really makes Gilmore a great fit is his aggressiveness. If a quarterback throws a poor pass, he is going to make the guy pay and he never shies away from contact when trying to make a stop, he seeks it.
Fletcher Cox, Defensive Tackle/Defensive End, Mississippi State
Fletcher Cox is yet another raw prospect just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. His size (6’4”, 295 pounds) combined with his speed and power make him an intriguing prospect for Bill Belichick’s much-preferred hybrid defensive looks.
Able to beat opposing lineman with a surprising burst or shed blocks with impressive hands and strength, Cox certainly looks to be capable of filling the defensive tackle/defensive end role Richard Seymour held during the real glory years.
A stout run defender, the ability to represent a legitimate pass-rush threat from either the 3-4 end or 4-3 tackle positions make him a coveted prospect. Despite racking up somewhat respectable sack numbers last season—through the combined efforts of Mark Anderson and Andre Carter—the Patriots could not create a great enough sense of pressure from play to play. As a result defensive backs were often left out to dry which was only compounded by the lack of depth in the secondary.
Much like the Green Bay Packers, the Patriots could use an outside pass-rusher but they cannot undervalue the importance of an interior force.
Luke Kuechly, Inside Linebacker, Boston College
Luke Kuechly is the type of uber-productive linebacker with less-than-spectacular measurables never-fails to fall into the second or third round of every draft. Instincts and talent so clearly seen on tape completely forgotten in the midst of below average 40-times and shuttle runs.
Kuechly does not have timed speed, however he is apparently fast enough to make nearly 20 times per game. The Giants do not have any overwhelming holes to fill on either side of the ball; a left guard, third receiver, tight end and some depth at corner being all needs that can easily be attended to later in the draft or through free agency.
I say take a shot. At worst he is a clear upgrade over Chase Blackburn and at best possibly the hardworking, cerebral leader of the defense for at least the next decade.