The NFL landscape will change dramatically over the course of the next two weeks as free agency signings and franchise tags alter team needs and team strengths.
With free agency looming, and franchise tags having been applied to a number of players already, here is one more look at how the first round of the 2012 NFL draft will look.
As the draft nears, each mock draft published here will begin to take on more of a "what will happen" look at team needs and player values. Free agency can and will change this, but seven weeks out, this is a close look at where players will be drafted (rightfully or wrongfully so) and which areas teams need help with.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford
There will be no suspense this year when the Indianapolis Colts go on the clock with the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Their selection will be Andrew Luck.
The Colts are rebuilding from the ground up, with the team likely to lose Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Jeff Saturday and Robert Mathis this offseason. Drafting the best quarterback prospect of the last 25 years is a great first step in reloading the talent pool in Indianapolis.
Luck may struggle in his first season if the Colts cannot add or keep talent around him. His 40-yard dash time of 4.59 seconds will come in handy behind an Indianapolis offensive line that struggled to keep quarterbacks upright in 2011.
Indianapolis has an easy choice to make with the No. 1 overall pick—the hard part comes in building a team around Luck through the draft and free agency.
Washington trades 2012 1st, 3rd and 5th plus 2013 1st and 3rd to St. Louis for No. 2 overall pick
Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor
Throw out everything you think you know about the value of a draft pick. The New York Giants traded their first (pick No. 4), third (pick No. 65) and the next year's first- and third-round picks for Eli Manning during the 2004 NFL draft. The bounty for RG3 will, and should be, higher.
The Redskins are but one team linked to the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, but they also have the only owner brave enough—or crazy enough—to author a Herschel Walker-like trade to the Rams in order to draft a potential franchise savior like Griffin.
Washington shouldn't be considered a favorite for Peyton Manning—not with Mike Shanahan running the show. Manning is a poor fit for Shanahan's offense, and he's wisely being seen as a short-term option there. Redskins fans want a long-term answer. They want a winner, a face, a leader. Griffin can be that man.
Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, USC
Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder showed flashes of greatness during his up-and-down rookie season. Trouble is, Ponder had no one protecting him and few options to deliver the football too. That should change heading into 2012.
Left tackle Charlie Johnson recently ranked as the worst of our left tackles graded in the B/R 1,000 series. It's easy to see why the Vikings would bypass skill position players like Justin Blackmon or Morris Claiborne for a shot at a future All-Pro tackle.
Matt Kalil may not be in the Joe Thomas or Jake Long area in terms of prospect grading, but he's very close. Kalil has the strength, athletic ability and intelligence to be a rookie starter for the Vikings—a position he will hold down for the next 12 years.
Morris Claiborne, Cornerback, LSU
The Cleveland Browns will be linked as possible trading partners with the St. Louis Rams, but my instincts say that Tom Heckert and Mike Holmgren are content to use their three picks in the top 37 choices to build the talent on the team instead of going for one player.
With the No. 4 overall pick, the Browns can go a few directions. Some fans will undoubtedly want Justin Blackmon (WR-Oklahoma State), and in the past I've had them selecting Trent Richardson (RB-Alabama)—but the best player on the board is Morris Claiborne from LSU.
The cornerback is a shutdown stud, and when paired with Joe Haden, will give the Browns a dynamite 1-2 punch at the position.
Drafting a cornerback here allows Cleveland to pursue a wide receiver through free agency or with their second first-round pick. With their second-rounder, the Browns can add depth at running back or try to add a right defensive end.
Justin Blackmon, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
If you read the mock draft posted here each week, you'll notice this is a new selection. And it makes too much sense for it to not happen.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a solid wide receiver in Mike Williams, but he's more of a vertical threat. Arrellious Benn has talent, but he would be best served in the slot. What the offense really needs is a possession-style receiver who can dominate intermediate openings in the defense and draw safeties off Williams.
Blackmon may be seen as a luxury pick, but he's more than that. Blackmon will open up an offense that struggled in 2011 under bland play-calling and execution. For Josh Freeman to become a Top-10 quarterback in the NFL, he needs a target that he can trust.
Washington trades 2012 1st, 3rd and 5th plus 2013 1st and 3rd to St. Louis for No. 2 overall pick
Michael Brockers, Defensive Tackle, LSU
The St. Louis Rams were the big winners of the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, as the value of the second overall pick skyrocketed. With the first pick received in exchange, Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams will look to add the final piece to a very good defensive line.
Brockers, just a redshirt sophomore from LSU, has the raw talent to be elite once coached up. He played primarily in a man-scheme at LSU, which asked him to control an offensive lineman (or two) in an effort to free up an outside pass-rush and let linebackers make tackles. In the NFL he'll be immediately ready as a run-stopper and has the wheels to improve as a pass-rusher.
Jeff Fisher knows defensive tackles better than most in the NFL, and he understands their value. With Brockers on the board the Rams will draft their three-technique mauler and use the remaining picks received—and a boat load of cash in free agency—to build talent at wide receiver and other positions.
See my recent scouting report on Michael Brockers.
Nick Perry, Defensive End, USC
Nick Perry may not have hit the mainstream yet in terms of elite draft prospects, but he will be in due time.
Perry was listed at 250 lbs. by USC, leaving many to assume he would make a natural transition to outside linebacker in the NFL. That was at least before the combine, where Perry came in at a chiseled 271 lbs. Even with 21 lbs. of extra muscle, he ran an eye-popping 4.50 in the 40-yard dash.
Perry's numbers across the board show an elite athlete. His film does the same. Unlike workout warriors before him, Perry backs up his athletic ability with his play on the field.
Quinton Coples, Defensive End, North Carolina
If you read nothing else on this page, please read this—I absolutely hate this pick. Hate it. With a passion. But it's very likely to happen.
Quinton Coples is a classic example of teams and the media falling in love with a player based on what he should be able to do—not what he does.
Coples had 7.5 sacks in 2011—a reputable number for a big-bodied defensive end who saw a lot of double-teams. Look closer at that number though and you'll see that four of his sacks came against perennial powers (hint, sarcasm) James Madison and Duke. How many offensive linemen will those two schools put in the NFL? Answer—none.
Coples in the Top 10 is a massive reach, and a mistake, but it's likely one that will happen.
Dontari Poe, Defensive Tackle, Memphis
Here's another pick that probably should not happen, but likely will.
The Carolina Panthers need a big-bodied defensive tackle to plug holes in the middle of the defense and let play-makers Charles Johnson, Dan Connor and Jon Beason make plays. The team spent two choices in the 2011 draft on the position, but neither player flashed the potential to be a star at this level.
Dontari Poe has flashed that potential repeatedly and is on the verge of catching on fire. Few players' stock is as high as Poe's after a huge combine performance that saw him bench press 225 lbs 44 times (the most at the combine), while running a 4.87 in the 40-yard dash at 346 lbs.
Poe is a raw athlete, and his game film doesn't show production to match his athleticism, but that's what coaches are for. If Ron Rivera can maximize the potential of this athlete the way he did last year's first-rounder—Cam Newton—the Panthers will be very happy.
Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame
The Buffalo Bills are in an interesting position this offseason. They can genuinely sit back and draft the best player available with the No. 10 pick in the first round.
With needs at virtually every position, Buddy Nix can identify value in the position and player they will draft. Michael Floyd from Notre Dame not only has incredible value, but he fills a need at the wide receiver position even with Stevie Johnson returning to Buffalo.
Floyd impressed by running a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, so much so that it's not unthinkable that he will be the first receiver drafted.
David DeCastro, Offensive Guard, Stanford
The Kansas City Chiefs remain a quiet team in the 2012 offseason, with few people taking notice that this team is ready to have a very good 2012 season with the return of injured starters Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry.
To get over the hump in the AFC West and take back their division, Kansas City needs to focus on building up their offensive and defensive lines. Step one—drafting the best offensive guard since Steve Hutchinson left Michigan in 2001.
DeCastro comes from a pro-ready offense and has ability as both a run and pass protector. He's a steal with the No. 11 overall pick and adds more talent to a team slowly building up a very nice nucleus.
Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama
The Seattle Seahawks and running back Marshawn Lynch are reportedly at an "impasse" in negotiations for a new contract. Lynch may receive the franchise tag and he may be re-signed. Either way, another running back is needed in Seattle to share the load or potentially replace Lynch.
Trent Richardson hasn't received the hype be deserves in the pre-draft lead up as he's been out with a minor knee surgery. Richardson, if healthy, would be a hot name this spring.
Since having started evaluating and scouting players in 2001, there has been a string of very good running backs. For me, Richardson is the best all-around running back prospect to come out of college since LaDainian Tomlinson.
Seattle fans may not want a running back here, but he's not only the best player available, he fills a need.
Update: After publishing time the Seahawks signed Lynch to a four-year, $31 million deal that is essentially a two-year, $17 million deal. This does take pressure off the team to find a running back, but with Lynch's history and the amount of hits he takes (and delivers), running back is still the pick for them.
Riley Reiff, Offensive Tackle, Iowa
The Arizona Cardinals have the skill players to be very good. They have a defense good enough to compete with the best teams in the league. What they don't have is an offensive line good enough to protect their offense.
Levi Brown has been a punchline at left tackle, and even after improving slightly over the last two seasons, he's still a player the team needs to upgrade from.
Riley Reiff has slipped a bit on my board since the season ended, but he's still the clear-cut No. 2 tackle in this class. His ability to slide and mirror will mask any issues from having less than ideal arm length.
Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback, North Alabama
Last week I wrote at length why the Dallas Cowboys should avoid Janoris Jenkins. Cowboys fans turned out in staggering numbers to say they didn't care about Jenkins three arrests or his four kids—they wanted him.
Here you go. Good luck.
I have met Jenkins twice in the last two months. He seems like a fine person who has been coached very well on what to say and what not to say. He was contrite and honest, but his checkered past also shows a string of mistakes and bad decisions.
If the Dallas Cowboys want that, God speed to them.
For any NFL team who cares about my opinion, I would have a big red flag next to Jenkins' name as a player to proceed with caution on.
Dont'a Hightower, Inside Linebacker, Alabama
Giving DeSean Jackson the franchise tag has opened up new options for the Philadelphia Eagles, who swung and missed by trusting their middle linebacker job to rookie Casey Matthews in 2011. They'll give the job to another rookie in 2012, but this time it will work out.
Hightower has the speed, strength and instincts to be the leader and productive Mike linebacker the Eagles need so badly. Taking a look at the rest of the defense, it's easy to see how the right person at middle linebacker could bring this entire unit together.
Hightower's experience at Alabama, where he led the defense, makes him a likely Day One starter in the NFL.
Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, South Carolina
The New York Jets are lucky to find my No. 1 wide receiver on the board with the No. 16 overall pick. By late April, there's a strong possibility that Jeffery will have moved himself up the boards of NFL teams too.
Jeffery was criticized for playing out of shape in 2011, but impressed by weighing in at 216 lbs at the combine. He didn't run there, instead waiting to focus on his speed at the South Carolina Pro Day. There, Jeffery will have the chance to make or break his stock.
Jeffery's game is not built on speed, but instead on using his big frame and great hands to separate and go up for the football. Like Anquan Boldin and Plaxico Burress before him, Jeffery will make his living in the red zone.
Cordy Glenn, Offensive Guard, Georgia
With two choices in the first round thanks to the trade that sent Carson Palmer to Oakland, the Cincinnati Bengals are in a great position to shore up holes on a roster that was good enough to make a playoff run with a rookie quarterback in 2011.
The Bengals will first look to make improvements at offensive guard, where Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams are unlikely to return in 2012.
Cordy Glenn has played both guard and tackle at Georgia, but his best NFL position is at right guard, where his power and strength make him a big advantage in the run game and an anchor against nose tackles in the AFC North.
Melvin Ingram, Outside Linebacker, South Carolina
Count me among those who really like what Antwan Barnes is able to do as a pass-rusher, but the San Diego Chargers cannot afford to bypass a potentially elite outside linebacker just because they have a pretty good third-down rusher in Barnes.
Ingram's ability to play all over the defense—he lined up at three positions (end, tackle, linebacker) for South Carolina—makes him the type of hard-nosed football player the San Diego roster needs.
Lining Ingram up opposite of Shaun Phillips will give San Diego a dynamic one-two punch on the edge.
Stephen Hill, Wide Receiver, Georgia Tech
Scouts and evaluators are warned against putting too much stock in the 40-yard dash, but when a wide receiver who measures 6'4" and 215 lbs runs a 4.30, you take notice.
Stephen Hill is admittedly raw at the wide receiver position after playing in a triple-option based offense at Georgia Tech. However, he is spending his spring working with a private wide receiver coach at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida where he is increasing his knowledge of route-running and the physical mechanics of the position.
Hill is a blank canvas that NFL teams can work with. After the success of Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas coming out of the same system, teams will take notice.
Courtney Upshaw, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Alabama
When the Denver Broncos drafted Von Miller with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, analysts freaked out. How would Denver fit Miller, a pass-rusher, into their 4-3 defense as an outside linebacker?
One Defensive Rookie of the Year trophy and 11.5 sacks later, no one really cares. The fact is, Miller was a football player, and that's what Denver needed.
Fast forward to 2012 and the Tennessee Titans are faced with a similar decision with the No. 20 pick. Courtney Upshaw played the same role as Miller, often being a "joker" pass-rusher in the Alabama defense. He's not a classic defensive end, as he's too short-armed and not quite explosive enough, but he's a strong tackler and solid in space.
Tennessee has the benefit of starting Upshaw at outside linebacker, where he'll round out a corps featuring 2011 rookies Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy. On third-down the Titans can slide him down to defensive end and let him wreak havoc on Andrew Luck, Matt Schaub and Blaine Gabbert.
Lamar Miller, Running Back, Miami (FL)
The Cincinnati Bengals face a tough decision at running back this offseason. Cedric Benson has been solid, but unspectacular, at running back for the past three seasons. With his contract expiring, the Bengals need to get younger and faster.
Bernard Scott is in place and can be a dependable No. 2 back, but he's not someone you want carrying the ball 20 times a game. Lamar Miller is.
Miller's a blazer with 4.3 speed and unbelievable acceleration. Running behind the big, nasty offensive line in Cincinnati, he will find daylight and be able to punish defenses with his track-star credentials.
If you can, imagine what Chris Johnson did pre-2011 behind a big, aggressive Tennessee offensive line. Miller has similar credentials and could be a similar steal in the late first round.
Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver, Baylor
While doing my round of radio spots this week, I was asked repeatedly about Kendall Wright's "official" timing of 4.61 in the 40-yard dash. What I can tell you is this—it's wrong.
Wright was timed on the field at 4.45 seconds. NFL Network even flashed this time as his first run. What's more, Kendall Wright doesn't play slow, and that's all that matters.
The Browns need more weapons for an offense that is still trying to adjust to the West Coast Offense Pat Shurmur installed last offseason. Wright would be an ideal slot receiver, freeing up Greg Little and Evan Moore.
Cleveland could also use a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, but they have room in free agency to pursue one of the many star receivers available this year.
Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, South Carolina
Each week I receive hate mail from fans who don't want Stephon Gilmore on their team. You can think that now, but please remember next year at this time when one lucky team has a future Pro Bowler at cornerback because they ignored you and drafted Gilmore in the first round.
Everything about Gilmore screams Day One starter. He's big, polished in man and zone coverage, has the athletic ability to contribute as a returner and is damn good coming up to play the run. Why fans wouldn't want Gilmore confuses me.
Fans of the Detroit Lions will comment that they need a left tackle (they do), a center (definitely) or even a defensive end here. I agree, but the Lions are notorious for drafting the best player available. Martin Mayhew has done this time and time again.
Gilmore is the best available player and will also give the Lions a true No. 1 cornerback.
Luke Kuechly, Inside Linebacker, Boston College
Here is another instance where placing a particular player in Round 1—over my own personal grade—makes me throw up a little.
Luke Kuechly has benefited from inflated tackle numbers and a long-running tradition of Boston College players doing very well in the NFL. That alone doesn't make a player worthy of a first-round grade.
My gripe with Kuechly is that he makes too many tackles downfield. Rarely do you see Kuechly attack a gap, take on a blocker and then make the tackle. What you will see, often, is Kuechly loop around blockers and chase down the ball carrier for a tackle.
Is he productive? Hell yes. Kuechly is a fluid athlete with a decent nose for the football. So was Paul Posluszny. So was James Laurinaitis. There is a reason both were drafted outside the first round.
One caveat is that Kuechly could do well in certain systems. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a rare team where he makes sense as a potential first-rounder. In their 3-4 defense Kuechly will be protected by a nose tackle and fellow 'backer Lawrence Timmons. His athleticism would be an advantage as a chase-tackler for the black and gold.
Fletcher Cox, Defensive Tackle, Mississippi State
The Denver Broncos are a true wild card in this year's draft. With the No. 25 overall pick they could go a number of directions, but the smart pick is drafting a penetrating defensive tackle who can also stuff the run.
Fletcher Cox has been underrated to date, playing second fiddle to guys like Dontari Poe and Jerel Worthy, when in fact his film is much more impressive. Cox has a long, lean frame that can be overlooked. When you see him split the guard/center combo block and attack the backfield, you instantly fall in love with his potential.
The Broncos could surprise folks here and draft a quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), running back (Chris Polk) or cornerback (Dre Kirkpatrick).
Mike Martin, Nose Tackle, Michigan
The Houston Texans have been predicted to draft a wide receiver at this spot in previous mock drafts, but looking at their depth chart and which players are still on the board, nose tackle is a better value pick here.
The Texans do need a wide receiver, but free agency is loaded at the position this year. The nose tackle position—not so much. Mike Martin would be an instant starter between J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, allowing Shaun Cody to be more of a rotational player.
Free agency is likely to impact this selection dramatically. If the Texans cannot re-sign Mike Brisiel or Chris Myers, they could draft an interior lineman here like Peter Konz or Kevin Zeitler.
Vinny Curry, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Marshall
The New England Patriots are always tough to predict, but this year they have clear-cut needs. Finding a No. 1 wide receiver is a must, as is finding a true speed rusher off the edge.
The team can find a wide receiver in free agency, and they have already been linked to Vincent Jackson and Brandon Lloyd at the position. At outside linebacker, they are more likely to utilize the draft.
Vinny Curry has played defensive end at Marshall, but has the quickness and loose hips to make an easy move to outside linebacker in the Patriots' hybrid scheme.
Whitney Mercilus, Outside Linebacker, Illinois
Barring major changes in free agency, the Green Bay Packers first pick in the draft will be used to address the defensive front seven. They can choose between an outside linebacker or defensive end, with both being a major need.
Whitney Mercilus was good enough at getting to the quarterback during the 2011 season to lead the NCAA in sacks. He has the build and speed to be a factor opposite Clay Matthews, Jr., giving the Packers balance off the edge.
Peter Konz, Center, Wisconsin
Peter Konz comes to Baltimore as a versatile offensive lineman, able to play guard or center, and fills a need along the offensive line.
The Ravens are expected to lose guard Ben Grubbs in free agency. If they do, Konz becomes an instant starter at left guard, lining up between Jah Reid and Matt Birk. Once Birk retires, which could be this year or after the 2012 season, Konz would make the move inside and take over the job as the team's center.
The Ravens draft smart, and they do a great job identifying needs and value. Konz is a Ravens-style pick that will pay off immediately and down the road.
Jamell Fleming, Cornerback, Oklahoma
With the San Francisco 49ers using their franchise tag on safety Dashon Goldson, the team is allowing 31-year-old cornerback Carlos Rogers to hit the open market.
Even if Rogers is back in San Francisco next year, the team needs more players at cornerback. Tarell Brown is a decent starter, but could be best served in nickel duty. Chris Culliver played very well in his rookie season, but he's still raw. Rounding out the position, San Francisco can easily invest a first-round pick in an aggressive, press-man style cornerback.
Fleming was the most impressive cornerback at the Senior Bowl and did well again at the combine. His stock continues to rise.
Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback/Safety, Alabama
I've been on a rant many times this offseason about the fact that Dre Kirkpatrick is horribly overrated at cornerback. He lacks the speed, the physicality and the technique to be an elite cornerback. At free safety, though, Kirkpatrick could be a star.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a tie to the Alabama program, and he's shown in the past that drafting players from his friend Nick Saban's program isn't an issue. Should New England keep this pick, Kirkpatrick makes sense.
Drafting Dre here allows New England to keep Devin McCourty at cornerback, lining him up opposite Ras-I Dowling in 2012. Kirkpatrick and Patrick Chung would solidify the safety position, giving the Patriots a safety who has the coverage experience to line up against tight ends and even slot receivers.
Orson Charles, Tight End, Georgia