With the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine now underway, and the start of on-field drills just hours away, I present my pre-Combine mock draft.
I do not put great stock in combine workouts, so the drills themselves should not make a big difference in my mock drafts following the combine. That said, as I watch more prospect game tape, my rankings are sure to change, and as more information about who teams are interested in surfaces, I will come up with new ideas as to where teams will be leaning on draft day.
Two big events that have already made a big impact on the draft have already occurred at the combine, those being the two coin flips that determine which teams would hold the No. 8 and No. 11 overall draft picks. The Miami Dolphins received the eighth pick while the Carolina Panthers received No. 9, and the Kansas City Chiefs won No. 11 while the Seattle Seahawks won No. 12. (As it worked out, I had both sets of picks reversed in Mock Draft 1.0)
Read through the slides to see my current projections for the 2012 NFL Draft, with some significant changes from Mock Draft 1.0.
With the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine now underway, and the start of on-field drills just hours away, I present my pre-Combine mock draft.
Rank among my Top 300 Prospects: No. 1
No change in this selection from the first mock draft, and this is the one pick that I do not expect to change at all in any of my mock drafts.
The Peyton Manning era for the Indianapolis Colts organization appears to be approaching its end. Manning missed the entire 2011 season coming off of neck surgery, and has a $26 million roster bonus due on March 8.
The Colts cannot be certain of whether Manning will ever return to form, so they are expected to release him before he receives that roster bonus. Additionally, with the top overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Colts cannot pass up the opportunity to draft one of the greatest quarterback prospects in quite some time, Stanford’s Andrew Luck.
Luck is virtually a unanimous choice as the top prospect in this year’s draft. He has no significant weakness in his game, and has all the tools, ability and intangibles to be a franchise quarterback for many years to come.
Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but now is the time for the Colts to move on. They have the opportunity to go from one superstar quarterback to another, and all indications suggest the Colts are going to make that move.
Projected Trade: The St. Louis Rams trade the second and 97th overall selections in the 2012 NFL Draft to the Washington Redskins in exchange for the sixth and 39th overall selections, and their first-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Rank among my Top 300 Prospects: No. 3
With little question as to what the Colts will do with the first overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams hold the key to how the rest of the first round will play out with the second overall selection.
In Mock Draft 1.0, I projected that the Rams would hold on to the second overall pick and select the best player available, USC left tackle Matt Kalil. The Rams could certainly use an upgrade at left tackle to protect quarterback Sam Bradford, and Kalil is an elite talent who is hard to pass up here.
That said, the Rams may very well have two teams competing to move up to this selection, the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins, with the subsequent result of drafting a franchise quarterback of their own in Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. Of the two teams, I am more sold on the Redskins throwing all of their chips into making a move up the draft board, as they are in more dire need of a quarterback than the Browns, who could decide to give Colt McCoy another year to prove himself.
In the projected trade, the Rams could remain within the top six, which could still give them a chance to select one of the draft’s top offensive tackles or wide receivers, the two positions of greatest need for St. Louis. Meanwhile, they could add two more tremendous picks to continue building up their roster in an early second-round pick and next year’s Redskins first-round pick. This would be a difficult offer for the Rams to pass up.
Investing all of their draft picks would be a risky move for the Redskins, but it is a move I can see them making. The Redskins are known to trade away large packages of picks to move up in the draft, and they really need an upgrade over Rex Grossman or John Beck at quarterback.
Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos led by legendary quarterback John Elway, needs to bring a franchise quarterback to D.C. With the Cleveland Browns sitting at fourth overall and primed to select RG3, the Redskins need to make a big move up in the draft in order to get him.
Knowing that the Browns could also be in the conversation to move up to the second overall pick, I expect the Redskins to make the move up to the No. 2 spot, and get the second of two franchise quarterbacks in the draft class.
Rank: No. 2
USC’s Matt Kalil is an obvious choice for the Minnesota Vikings if he is still on the draft board at No. 3 overall.
Charlie Johnson is a high-motor offensive lineman who is a strong run blocker, but he simply is not of the caliber to be a starting left tackle in the National Football League. He does possess the footwork and athleticism to fend off pass rushers as a blindside protector in the NFL.
Johnson should have a future with the Vikings at guard, but in order for Christian Ponder to thrive in the Vikings’ offense, the franchise needs to find a left tackle who can keep Ponder out of harm’s way. Kalil can be that player.
Kalil is an elite left tackle prospect, with everything scouts look for in an offensive tackle: ideal size, terrific technique, strength and great footwork. By drafting Kalil at this pick, the Vikings bring in the best player available on the board, fill their biggest need, and make a pick who should pay off with both immediate and long-term dividends.
Rank: No. 7
If Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III is surprisingly available with the fourth overall draft selection, the Cleveland Browns would almost certainly not pass him up. That said, while the Browns are in the best position of any team to trade up for Griffin if they decide to make a move, I am not sold that they will be looking to outbid the Redskins to do so.
Assuming they stay put, Alabama running back Trent Richardson is the likely choice for the Browns.
While the Browns would certainly benefit from bringing in RG3, what the Browns really need are offensive playmakers, whether that be at quarterback, running back, or wide receiver. That makes Richardson and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon both potential choices here, but with running back Peyton Hillis likely to leave as a free agent, Richardson would be the better choice.
The Browns recently hired Brad Childress, former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, as their offensive coordinator. The offense he ran in Minnesota revolved around a superstar running back, Adrian Peterson, and by drafting Richardson at fourth overall, he will have the potential to replicate that in Cleveland’s offense.
LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is also a possibility here: he is the draft’s top defensive prospect, the best player available at this point and the Browns could certainly use another playmaker in their secondary to line up across from Joe Haden. That said, it would come as a surprise if the Browns go with defense over offense with the No. 4 overall selection.
Rank: No. 4
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered a complete free fall this past season, in large part due to the horrendous play of their defense. The Buccaneers lost the final 10 games of their season, with a defense that ranked 30th in total yards allowed and worst in the league in scoring defense.
The Buccaneers really need to upgrade their secondary, and LSU’s Morris Claiborne is the best defensive player in the 2012 draft class. He can become the No. 1 cornerback the Buccaneers need, and is the best value pick the Bucs can make with this pick.
If Claiborne were off the board, then Alabama running back Trent Richardson would also be a great pick here if he were available. That said, with Richardson off the board, Claiborne is one of the most clear-cut decisions of the entire first round.
Rank: No. 6
The St. Louis Rams pass up the opportunity to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil, but after trading down only four spots and picking up two big picks in the process, the Rams still have very good options available to them at the No. 6 overall pick.
Stanford left tackle Jonathan Martin could also be the upgrade the Rams need at left tackle to protect Sam Bradford. However, what Bradford also desperately needs is a big playmaker at the wide receiver position, and the Rams can get very good value while bringing in that big playmaker in Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon.
Blackmon is a true No. 1 wideout who should be able to flourish with a talented young quarterback in Bradford able to deliver the football his way. Blackmon had tremendous productivity in college, has great size and strength, is a very skilled route runner, and has great hands.
In previous articles, I have questioned Blackmon’s athleticism but since then, I re-watched the game tape of this year’s Fiesta Bowl vs. Stanford. On numerous occasions in this game, Blackmon was able to get wide open, then outrun the Stanford secondary with his speed and burn the Cardinal for a long touchdown. While Blackmon may not be quite the athletic specimen that Julio Jones is, the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft, he has the ability to be a true deep threat at the next level, and is well worth the sixth overall selection in the draft.
Rank: No. 13
The Jacksonville Jaguars desperately need help at wide receiver, but with Justin Blackmon taken off the board one pick earlier, they will be forced to decide between selecting South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery or going in another direction.
While Jeffery has star potential, he is coming off of a very disappointing junior season. If Jeffery, who has also faced concerns over his speed, runs well at the combine, he could very well be a top-10 pick.
Given the Jaguars’ need at the position, Jeffery would be a legitimate choice here, but he is somewhat of a reach at seventh overall. Therefore, I think the Jaguars will instead look to another major need, defensive end, and draft a player with huge upside in North Carolina’s Quinton Coples.
Like Jeffery, Coples is also coming off a disappointing final collegiate season, but he has the potential to be a terrific defensive end, and the Jaguars need a playmaker on their defensive front. Coples is the best defensive end in the 2012 draft class, and a player who could really fit what the Jaguars need to improve in their defense.
Rank: No. 14
Under new head coach Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, it is unclear whether the Dolphins will run a 4-3 or a 3-4 as their base defense, but Coyle has implied that the team will be running a hybrid defensive system with elements of both next season.
For their new defense, the Dolphins should be looking for another versatile, hybrid pass rusher who can line up across from Cameron Wake. South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram fits the bill.
At only 6’2’’, Ingram is best suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but with his strength, explosiveness, and athleticism, he has the potential to excel in any defensive scheme. For a team seeking a versatile player for a hybrid defense, Ingram is a tremendous fit.
Another versatile player who would be a terrific addition to the Dolphins’ defense is Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw. The best player available on the board, Upshaw’s best fit is also at 3-4 outside linebacker, but can play any linebacker position as well as line up as 4-3 defensive end. However, Ingram would be the better fit for the Dolphins’ defense.
In the first mock draft, I mocked Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff to the Dolphins to upgrade at right tackle. Philbin had a very solid Iowa alumnus at right tackle in Bryan Bulaga with the Packers, so he could very well look to replicate with Reiff. However, defense is the better choice with this pick.
Rank: No. 5
Asked at which positions the Carolina Panthers need to upgrade defensively, head coach Ron Rivera said, “We need help pretty much all over,” as quoted by Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.
The Panthers made big strides last season in Ron Rivera’s first season as head coach, in large part due to an offensive turnaround led by rookie quarterback Cam Newton. That said, the Panthers’ defense still struggled badly, ranking 28th in total defense last season.
The Panthers could add another offensive playmaker and stay close to home with this pick by selecting South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. However, Rivera is clearly focused on defense, which is why he should select the best player available on the board in Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
Upshaw is easily the best player on the draft board at this point, and the Panthers are in a position where they should use this selection to draft the best defensive player available. Upshaw would bring versatility to the Panthers, as he has the ability to stand up and play outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, but could also line up in pass-rushing situations as a rush defensive end.
The Panthers need help in both of those areas. Two of the Panthers’ three starting linebackers, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, are coming off of major injuries (Beason tore his Achilles, while Davis suffered a torn ACL for the third consecutive season), leaving both of their statuses for 2012 in question. The Panthers also need another pass rusher to line up opposite of Charles Johnson, so the added value of Upshaw’s ability to line up as a rush end is huge here as well.
Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick are all also possibilities with this pick as well, but with Quinton Coples and Melvin Ingram off of the board, Upshaw should be the choice.
Rank: No. 8
In terms of both need and value, Stanford offensive tackle Jonathan Martin should be a clear choice here.
With Courtney Upshaw off of the board, Martin now ranks as the best player available on the board. The Bills need to upgrade on their offensive line, especially with starting left tackle Demetrius Bell being an unrestricted free agent.
Even if the Bills re-sign Bell, they would be best suited in drafting an upgrade at left tackle and converting Bell to right tackle. With Martin and Iowa’s Riley Reiff both still available, the Bills have great options in upgrading at the position.
In my opinion, Martin has been the more consistently dominant left tackle collegiately, and projects better to the position at the next level, whereas Reiff may be better suited to play right tackle. Either would be a very good choice here for the Bills, but they should go with Martin.
If the Bills are not as convinced as I am that they should use this draft choice on an offensive tackle, then they could use another playmaker at the wide receiver position to replace a likely outgoing Steve Johnson, so South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery would be a solid choice here as well.
Rank: No. 11
Much talk surrounding the Chiefs has been whether they will seek to replace Matt Cassel at quarterback, but with no first-round talents available at quarterback, they will look elsewhere with this selection.
The Chiefs have a need at right tackle, and can make a great selection for both value and need in Iowa’s Riley Reiff. Reiff is a very good offensive tackle who is both tough and physical as well as athletic, and should be able to start at right tackle immediately. Eventually, he may be able to replace Branden Albert at left tackle, who may be a better fit at right tackle or inside at guard.
The Chiefs could also use this draft selection on a guard in Stanford’s David DeCastro, or look to upgrade at inside linebacker by selecting Boston College’s Luke Kuechly. That said, Reiff is the best choice for both value and need here.
Rank: No. 9
David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill are both good linebackers, but both are unrestricted free agents and the unit could definitely benefit from an upgrade. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Boston College’s tackling machine Luke Kuechly is still on the board, and one of the best players available.
Kuechly, who led the NCAA in total tackles in each of his past two seasons (and was second in the NCAA as a freshman), is a tremendous middle linebacker with great instincts and tackling ability. Kuechly lacks the athleticism to be a star middle linebacker at the next level, but he will be able to contribute immediately, and should be a very steady middle linebacker for many years to come. He would be a great choice here for Seattle.
The Seahawks could also make an effort to upgrade their pass rush by selecting a defensive end in either USC’s Nick Perry or Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus. That said, Kuechly is a much better value selection.
Rank: No. 16
Levi Brown is much better suited to play right tackle, so the Arizona Cardinals need to find a true left tackle to protect the quarterback. The Cardinals are certainly hoping to be in position to draft Iowa’s Riley Reiff or Stanford’s Jonathan Martin, but with both of those players off of the draft board, the Cardinals could very well opt to select Ohio State’s Mike Adams with this selection.
The Cardinals offensive line was overmatched last season, giving up the second most sacks in the National Football League. The need to draft a left tackle is imperative, and as the last starting-caliber left tackle in the draft, Adams fits the bill and would be a very good choice here for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals could also look for a pass-rusher in USC’s Nick Perry or Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus, or add another cornerback in Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick, but Adams is the best choice.
Projected Trade: The Dallas Cowboys trade the 14th and 50th overall selections to the San Diego Chargers in exchange for the 18th, 46th and 82nd overall selections
Rank: No. 17
The Dallas Cowboys have many options with the No. 14 overall pick, but with the players remaining available, trading down may actually be their best option. Meanwhile, the San Diego Chargers are in serious need of an offensive tackle, and with a serious run on offensive tackles preceding this draft pick, the Chargers would be smart to make a move up the draft board to secure one of the two best offensive linemen available in Georgia’s Cordy Glenn.
Left tackle Marcus McNeill’s career has been unfortunately derailed by injuries, and he is expected to either retire or be released. The Chargers will likely make a strong effort to re-sign Jared Gaither, but that would still leave Jeromey Clary as a very subpar starting right tackle.
ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson quoted A.J. Smith saying that the offensive line “is the area that is causing (him) to lose sleep.” While the Chargers also need a pass rusher, and could stay put and select USC’s Nick Perry or Illinois’s Whitney Mercilus, chances are good that the two remaining top offensive line prospects, Glenn and Stanford guard David DeCastro, would be gone by the No. 18 overall pick.
The Chargers may not be able to get an upgrade at left tackle in this Draft, but Glenn has the ability to play both right tackle and guard at the next level, and would be a great fit to upgrade the Chargers' offensive line. Given that the Chargers have a dire need on the offensive line and recognize it, I think they will do what they need to do in this situation to upgrade.
If the Dallas Cowboys stay put at this draft selection, they would likely select the best value and draft DeCastro.
Rank: No. 19
The Philadelphia Eagles linebacker corps horribly underperformed last season, making it the team’s greatest need this offseason. It will come as a surprise if the Eagles do not use their first-round draft pick on a linebacker, and the best available at this selection is Alabama’s Dont'a Hightower.
While the Eagles do have two promising young rookies in Oregon’s Casey Matthews and Ohio State’s Brian Rolle, neither is likely to be the answer as a starting middle linebacker in the National Football League. The Eagles really need a playmaker in their linebacker corps, and Hightower can be that guy.
North Carolina’s Zach Brown would be a major reach in the middle of the first round, but he is an athletic linebacker whose stock is likely to rise following the combine. He is also a potential draft selection here, but Hightower is the pick that makes the most sense.
Rank: No. 18
I am under the expectation that future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning will be under center for the New York Jets next season (expect an article on that very soon). That said, whether Manning or current quarterback Mark Sanchez is the signal-caller for the Jets next season, the Jets need to find their quarterback more playmakers to work with.
The Jets could really use a big downfield receiver, and South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery fits the bill. While Jeffery could slide down the draft board coming off of a poor junior season, he is a tremendous playmaker who could also establish himself as a top-10 draft pick if he performs well in his workouts, and is a good value here.
If the Jets are not sold on Jeffery, they could also upgrade at running back by drafting Miami’s Lamar Miller or at safety with Alabama’s Mark Barron. However, he is the biggest impact player they can get at this point.
Rank: No. 12
Note: The Cincinnati Bengals received this draft pick from the Oakland Raiders during the 2011 season as part of a package in exchange for quarterback Carson Palmer.
The Cincinnati Bengals could be in position to hit the jackpot yet again for the second consecutive draft. The Bengals are in need of an upgrade on the interior line, and with the pick they acquired in their trade with the Raiders, they are looking at an opportunity to get a tremendous value selection in Stanford guard David DeCastro.
DeCastro is a tremendous interior line prospect who should rank among the NFL’s top guards for many years to come. DeCastro could be an immediate upgrade at right guard, and make the Bengals a much more powerful team on the interior line.
Two Alabama defensive backs, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Mark Barron, are also options here. That said, the Bengals should not pass up DeCastro if they have the chance to select him.
Rank: No. 31
LSU defensive lineman Michael Brockers is a high-risk selection in the middle of the first round, but he has huge upside. Dallas Cowboys president and general manager Jerry Jones is never afraid to take risks, and after trading down, the Cowboys will feel more comfortable with taking the chance on Brockers and adding a potential high-impact player to their defensive line.
Cornerback is the Cowboys’ biggest need, so Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick would be the best selection here, but Brockers could be exactly the player that the Cowboys need on their defensive front. Brockers played defensive tackle at LSU, but with his tremendous combination of size and athleticism, he projects very well to playing the 5-technique defensive end in the Cowboys 3-4 defense, while he can also line up alongside the Cowboys’ tremendous defensive tackle, Jay Ratliff, in four-man-front situations.
Brockers is a good fit for the Dallas Cowboys organization, and they can likely find an adequate cornerback with their upgraded second-round draft selection.
Projected Trade: The Chicago Bears trade the 19th overall selection to the Denver Broncos in exchange for the 25th overall selection, 89th overall selection and their fifth-round draft pick
Rank: No. 10
For a team that made the NFC Championship one year earlier, the Chicago Bears sure have an abundance of needs. With major needs at wide receiver, offensive line, tight end and the secondary, the Bears can use all the picks within the first three rounds that they can get. Without great value on the board, it makes for them to move a few spots down the draft board and make extra draft choices.
Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos have a major need for a defensive tackle, and a tremendous value is still on the draft board in Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy. Worthy is knocked for a questionable motor and inconsistent play, which are valid concerns, but he has the potential to be a dominant interior player and is worth making a move up in the draft to get at the 19th overall selection.
Rank: No. 26
The Tennessee Titans, who ranked 31st in the NFL in sacks last season, are in desperate need of pass-rushers. Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus is somewhat of a reach at the 20th overall selection, but given their need for an impact player in the defensive front seven, this choice should come between Mercilus and USC defensive end Nick Perry.
The Titans drafted defensive end Derrick Morgan with the 16th overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft, but he has been a major disappointment thus far, and even with Morgan, the Titans need another defensive end. Between Mercilus and Perry, Mercilus is coming off of a better season and is a better fit for the Titans defense.
For his sheer value, Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick would also be a tremendous choice here, but the Titans can address their greatest need and get one of the draft’s best pass-rushers by selecting Mercilus.
Rank: No. 15
If the draft plays out this way, the Cincinnati Bengals are going to be the big winners of the first round. Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick is a very talented cornerback who could easily be drafted within the top 20 selections, but if he slides down the draft board, the Bengals should pounce upon drafting him with the 21st overall selection.
The Cincinnati Bengals struggled last season with the task of replacing their star cornerback, Jonathan Joseph, who left for the Houston Texans via free agency. Their other top cornerback, Leon Hall, is coming off of a torn Achilles tendon. Kirkpatrick is a physical cover corner who would really help to shore up the Bengals' defensive backfield.
The second-best option here for the Bengals would be another player from the same collegiate secondary, Alabama safety Mark Barron. The Bengals could also go with a running back in Miami’s Lamar Miller, but are more likely to address that need in the second round.
Note: The Cleveland Browns acquired this draft pick from the Atlanta Falcons as part of a package in exchange for the sixth overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Rank: No. 25
As mentioned earlier, what the Cleveland Browns need most are offensive playmakers. The Browns already added one in Trent Richardson, but could look for a dynamic wideout with their second first-round selection, and Baylor’s Kendall Wright fits the bill.
Of the top receivers in the 2012 draft class, Wright is the speed threat of the group. Wright has the ability to be a big-play deep threat at the next level, exactly what the Browns need to add to their offense.
In his press conference at the scouting combine on Friday, Wright answered that he has met with the entire Cleveland Browns coaching staff, a clear sign that they are interested in drafting him with this selection.
The Browns have numerous other strong options here, including South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and USC defensive end Nick Perry, but the potential to add two impact playmakers in Richardson and Wright will be tough for the offensively challenged Browns to pass up.
Rank: No. 34
The Detroit Lions have done a great job building up their defensive line, but now must focus on upgrading their linebackers. North Carolina’s Zach Brown is a slight reach as a first-round draft pick, but his tremendous upside warrants his selection here.
Brown is a terrific athlete who could develop into a great playmaker at the linebacker position. He is an inconsistent tackler, but he has tremendous athleticism which enables him to track down players in space and drop into coverage. While Brown is not the best linebacker in the 2012 draft class, he has the most upside of anyone at his position.
The Detroit Lions also need to upgrade at the cornerback position, so South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore is another good option here, but Brown would be the expected choice.
Rank: No. 23
As Demaryius Thomas scored an 80-yard touchdown to win in overtime of Tim Tebow’s first playoff game, the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary was getting burned, showing that an upgrade at cornerback should be one of the team’s focuses in this draft. South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore is the top cornerback available, and one of the best players available on the board.
Gilmore has a great combination of size and athleticism, very good ball skills and is physical in coverage. Gilmore does not receive the attention of Claiborne and Kirkpatrick, but like his SEC counterparts, he has the skill set to be a terrific starting cornerback at the next level.
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, although he was burned on that play, will remain a starter in the Steelers secondary, but he is better to be a second cornerback. Gilmore has the skill set to develop into a top cornerback in the NFL, and would be a great selection here for the Steelers.
The Steelers’ biggest need, as has been the case for quite some time in the organization, is on the offensive line, but there are no offensive tackles or guards available who have any business being first-round draft picks. Therefore, Gilmore is the best choice.
Rank: No. 21
The Chicago Bears have many major needs, so after trading down, they should be in position to pick the best player available who fills a need with the 25th overall selection. Safety is one of the Bears’ major needs, and Mark Barron is the second-best player available at this point in the draft, so he would be a terrific pick for them here.
In a very weak safety class, Barron could potentially be the only safety selected within the first three rounds of the 2012 draft, let alone the first round. That certainly increases his value, and makes him a tremendous value selection after trading down. Barron is best suited to play strong safety, but could play either position as he would team up with current starting safety Major Wright next season.
The Bears could also fill a major need on the offensive line by selecting Wisconsin center Peter Konz, at wide receiver by drafting Wisconsin’s Nick Toon or Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd, or upgrade at tight end by bringing in Clemson’s Dwayne Allen, but Barron is the best all-around choice.
Rank: No. 38
The Houston Texans had a complete defensive turnaround last year. Under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Texans switched to a 3-4 defense and drafted two terrific players in the first two rounds with 5-technique defensive end J.J. Watt and pass-rushing outside linebacker Brooks Reed. That said, while Watt emerged immediately as a rookie as a tremendous fit for the Texans defense, they could still use more talent on their defensive line.
Brandon Thompson, Devon Still, and Fletcher Cox are the best values here on the defensive line, but all three of them would play the 5-technique in the Texans’ three-man front. What the Texans truly need is a nose tackle, and can fill that void by selecting Memphis’s Dontari Poe.
At 350 pounds, Poe is absolutely massive, and he is a very strong and powerful space-eater who could fill the gaps in the middle and give Watt and fellow defensive end Antonio Smith more leeway to make plays.
Originally, I had Still as the selection here, but recognized that while his value would be good late in the first round, drafting a 5-technique in the first round for the second consecutive year would be overkill, especially with an adequate starter already in Smith.
Note: The New England Patriots acquired this draft pick in the 2011 NFL draft along with the 56th overall selection in that draft from the New Orleans Saints in exchange for the 27th overall selection in that draft.
Rank: No. 20
Yes, the Patriots desperately need help in their secondary, but Bill Belichick always maximizes the value of the draft. At this point in the draft, any defensive back would be a significant reach, but the Patriots could also use another impact player in their defensive front. Clemson’s Brandon Thompson is the best player available on the board, and would be a great fit for the Patriots defense.
Brandon Thompson is a talented defensive lineman with high upside, who would be able to play at defensive tackle when the Patriots line up in a four-man front, and at defensive end when they line up in a three-man front. Thompson would be a very good fit to line up alongside Vince Wilfork in the Patriots defense.
Depending on which player is higher on the draft board, Penn State defensive lineman Devon Still could fill a similar role on the Patriots, and would be a good selection here as well. The Patriots could also take a chance on a wide receiver in Wisconsin’s Nick Toon or Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd. However, the Patriots always stress value over need, and Thompson is the best value, so he should be the pick here.
Rank: No. 37
The Green Bay Packers have three stars among their defensive front seven in nose tackle B.J. Raji, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, but need to upgrade at the outside linebacker spot across from Matthews and at the 5-technique defensive ends on either side of Raji.
5-technique may be the biggest need on their entire team, so either Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox or Penn State’s Devon Still would be a great choice here. However, after contemplating this selection a little more, I can now see them leaning toward USC’s Nick Perry with this selection.
Remember the last time the Packers took a chance on an athletic hybrid pass rusher out of USC, with limited collegiate productivity but raw talent and high upside? That player turned out to be Matthews.
Matthews had a down season this past year after being an All-Pro the season before, but a big reason for his decrease in productivity was the constant double-teaming he faced, as a result of the weak play at the spot across from him.
Perry may not be productive as an outside linebacker immediately, but he would be a good fit for the Packers’ defense, and could be the second pass-rushing presence that they desperately need.
Still or Cox would be the safer choice here (and the choice I would make as Packers’ GM), but Ted Thompson has never been afraid to take chances, and many of them have paid off in recent years, so I can see the Packers going with an upside selection here and drafting Perry.
Rank: No. 24
With Matt Birk contemplating retirement, it is time for the Baltimore Ravens to find his successor at the center position. The board falls perfectly for the Ravens in this scenario, as the draft’s best center, Wisconsin’s Peter Konz, is still available.
In a draft where offensive linemen are expected to go early and often, the Ravens should not hesitate to make this selection if Konz is still on the board. While Birk would likely return to the Ravens if he chooses not to retire, next season would likely be his last. Konz is a very good center who would be the perfect fit to replace him.
Rank: No. 41
Under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith had his best season as a quarterback, so the 49ers should be expected to re-sign him. But even if Smith were to leave via free agency, the 49ers have a potential starting quarterback already on the roster in Colin Kaepernick. Regardless of who the quarterback is, the 49ers need to help them out by bringing in a wide receiver.
The 49ers’ decision here should come between Wisconsin’s Nick Toon and Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd. I believe that Floyd is overrated as a prospect, and will not be the top-20 draft pick that many prognosticators think he will with his off-field troubles hurting his stock. That said, he has the upside to develop into the No. 1 wideout that Michael Crabtree has not become in San Francisco, so the 49ers are likely to take a chance on him here.
Rank: No. 44
Without any great value selections that would work here for the Patriots, I expect the Patriots to shop this pick heavily in an effort to trade down. However, without an easily identifiable team that would trade up at this point, the Patriots are forced to make a draft selection in this scenario.
If the Patriots keep this second pick, it would come as no surprise if they took a chance on North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Patriots have taken many chances on defensive backs in the first two rounds in recent drafts, and for the most part, they have swung and missed. That said, I would not expect head coach Bill Belichick to stop trying.
Had it not been for a series of off-field troubles that resulted in his dismissal from Florida, Jenkins may have contended with Morris Claiborne to be the top cornerback selected in this year’s draft. Jenkins is a very talented cornerback, but his stock is seriously damaged from the red flags surrounding his character.
The Patriots have shown in the past that they are willing to take a chance on players with bad histories, and they are often able to convince players to buy into the “Patriot way” and their off-field troubles subside. Late in the first round, Jenkins could end up being a steal if he plays up to his ability, and could be the No. 1 cornerback that the Patriots have been searching for ever since the departure of Asante Samuel in 2008.
If the Patriots pick here and decide not to risk another bust at cornerback, they could bring in a pass rusher in Marshall’s Vinny Curry, or upgrade at wide receiver with Wisconsin’s Nick Toon.
Rank: No. 22
While the New York Giants achieved ultimate glory for this past NFL season by winning Super Bowl XLVI, they did suffer one unfortunate setback for next season in that game. Starting tight end Jake Ballard, who had a breakout season, suffered a torn ACL, which could put next season in jeopardy for him.
Even with Ballard, the Giants could use another playmaker at the tight end position. Working out perfectly for the Giants is that Clemson’s Dwayne Allen is the best player available on the draft board, so he makes an obvious choice here. Allen is a well-rounded tight end who can be a dangerous threat in the passing offense but is also a strong blocker.
Georgia’s Orson Charles is also a very good tight end prospect who is a possibility here, but the Giants should opt for Allen over him.
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For more analysis of the 2012 NFL draft, follow me on Twitter @Dan_Hope.