With the NFL combine in the rear-view mirror, prospects who lit up the Indianapolis workouts have gotten a corresponding boost on draft boards. Of course, for every player who vaults into the early first round, another star expecting a top pick has to fall further down the board.
Here’s a look at how April’s first round might shake out…with special attention to some players who will be facing an unexpected wait to get chosen.
1. Indianapolis Colts: QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
No surprise here, as Peyton Manning’s job goes to the best QB prospect since…Peyton Manning. Luck will need help before he can turn this team around, but there isn’t a better prospect in the draft.
2. Washington Redskins: QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor
Washington removed any question mark from this selection when they acquired it from the Rams in a trade. RGIII is the obvious solution to the Redskins’ disastrous quarterbacking situation.
3. Minnesota Vikings: OT Matt Kalil, USC
Cornerback is also a serious need position, but the free-agent departure of Steve Hutchinson makes a weak O-line weaker. USC turns out franchise tackles by the barrel, and Kalil has many Pro Bowls in his future.
4. Cleveland Browns: RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
With Peyton Hillis gone to the Chiefs, Cleveland’s skill-position cupboard is desperately bare. With the top two QBs gone, the Browns go with the next-best franchise cornerstone option in Richardson, likely to be an even better pro than former teammate Mark Ingram of the Saints.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Morris Claiborne, LSU
Ronde Barber is about to turn 37 and may retire, and Aqib Talib is about to stand trial for assault and may go to jail. Tampa would do well to have one starting cornerback who’s actually sure to be on the roster come September, and Claiborne is the best defensive player in the draft.
6. St. Louis Rams: WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
With Matt Kalil off the board, this pick becomes a no-brainer for St. Louis. With Brandon Lloyd heading to New England, WR is a dire need for this offense, and Blackmon is the draft’s best by a significant margin.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame
As bad as Blaine Gabbert was last year, his receiving corps still has to take a good chunk of blame. Floyd is borderline as a No. 1 NFL target, but he’ll be the best pass-catcher on Jacksonville’s roster from day one.
8. Miami Dolphins: QB Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M
With Peyton Manning no longer an option, Miami is banking on signing Matt Flynn to solve its QB woes. Unless the Dolphins have Flynn on the roster by draft night, though, they’ll likely reach for Tannehill out of sheer desperation.
9. Carolina Panthers: DT Dontari Poe, Memphis
The biggest story of the combine was the 346-pound Poe’s astonishing 40 time of 4.87 seconds. For a Panthers’ D that couldn’t even pretend to stop the run, Poe becomes the most exciting option available.
10. Buffalo Bills: DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina
Mario Williams isn’t going to solve Buffalo’s pass-rush issues by himself. Coples makes a great bookend who won’t be out of his depth against the run.
11. Kansas City Chiefs: OT Riley Reiff, Iowa
Even if Branden Albert counts as a long-term solution—the left tackle will be a free agent after the upcoming season—Kansas City needs to give him help on the offensive line. Reiff has established himself as the second-best tackle in the draft, trailing only Matt Kalil.
12. Seattle Seahawks: DE Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
With no help in sight for the mess at QB, Seattle turns to the anemic pass rush. Ingram had 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss as the leader of a dangerous South Carolina defense last year.
13. Arizona Cardinals: OG David DeCastro, Stanford
Fixing the offensive line will help keep Kevin Kolb in the lineup to earn that mammoth roster bonus he just received. DeCastro will immediately become one of the best young guards in football.
14. Dallas Cowboys: CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama
Dallas must shore up a secondary that finished 23rd in the league in passing yards allowed despite the pass-rush presence of DeMarcus Ware. Kirkpatrick has size (6’2”), skill and championship experience.
15. Philadelphia Eagles: MLB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
Philly hasn’t had a playmaker at MLB since Jeremiah Trotter left town. Kuechly, who led the nation in tackles each of the last two years, has an unparalleled nose for the football.
16. New York Jets: OLB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
Even Darrelle Revis needs a viable pass rush in front of him in order to be effective. Upshaw, the most explosive player on Alabama’s magnificent defense, is a steal at No. 16.
17. Cincinnati Bengals: CB Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama
Cincinnati’s best defensive back, Leon Hall, is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Even if Hall is ready by opening day as expected, Jenkins (formerly of Florida) is a superior athlete who would give Cincy a top-notch pair to fill the starting CB spots.
18. San Diego Chargers: OG Cordy Glenn, Georgia
Age and injury have shredded the once-stalwart San Diego offensive front. Glenn has NFL size at 6’5”, 345 pounds, making him worth a reach despite some inconsistent performances.
19. Chicago Bears: S Mark Barron, Alabama
Chicago ran through every safety on its roster last year without finding an effective combination, and now Brandon Meriweather has left as a free agent. Barron has leadership ability, size (6’2”, 218 pounds) and impeccable coverage skills.
20. Tennessee Titans: DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
Among many problems for the Tennessee defense last year was an iffy pass rush. Mercilus led the FBS (formerly Division I-A) with 16 sacks a year ago, and in Tennessee’s 4-3, he won’t have to switch positions.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: WR Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech
A.J. Green was a rousing success as a rookie, but one wide receiver isn’t enough to make an NFL offense click. Hill is a 6’5” target with good speed who will really help Andy Dalton in the red one.
22. Cleveland Browns: WR Kendall Wright, Baylor
Rookie Greg Little put in a fine effort, but the fact that he led the Browns in catches says a lot about how weak the WR position is for Cleveland. Despite a poor combine showing, Wright is exactly the kind of speed burner this team didn’t have a year ago.
23. Detroit Lions: OT Jonathan Martin, Stanford
Aging Jeff Backus will need to be replaced soon, and Martin can be plugged in as an NFL starter for a decade. Corner is also a need here, but Martin is better than the available DBs.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: ILB Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
With Pittsburgh cutting James Farrior, a hole is created at a position they haven’t worried about in quite a while. Hightower is a potential steal who led the national champs with 85 tackles while notching 11 tackles for loss and four sacks.
25. Denver Broncos: DT Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State
Although Fletcher Cox has done wonders for his draft stock with a strong combine, he falls victim to a lack of demand at the DT position. He did post impressive numbers for the Bulldogs (14.5 tackles for loss, five sacks), but it’s very tough to crack the top half of the first round as an interior lineman.
Denver, though, will be happy to see such a talented run stopper fall this far. The Broncos need more interior muscle to complement rush ends Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers, and Cox fits the bill.
26. Houston Texans: WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina
A weak junior season—49 catches, 762 yards and eight TDs despite the loss of competition from injured RB Marcus Lattimore—has really done a number on Jeffery’s draft stock.
He trimmed 13 pounds to get to 216 for the combine, but even at 6’3”, the former top-15 contender is now a borderline first-rounder in terms of both speed and productivity.
Fortunately for Jeffery, the Texans’ biggest need is at WR, where they’ve never found an effective complement to Andre Johnson. The passing game’s woes during Johnson’s hamstring injury last year will force Houston to take the best pass-catcher available, even if he comes with as many caveats as Jeffery.
27. New England Patriots: DE/DT Devon Still, Penn State
The end of the Albert Haynesworth experiment leaves an opening on the New England D-Line. Still is a versatile penetrator (17 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) who will complement premier space-filler Vince Wilfork.
28. Green Bay Packers: OLB Nick Perry, USC
Even Clay Matthews only managed six sacks a year ago, so the pass rush is clearly an area where Green Bay can improve. Perry would be converting from DE, but with 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss a year ago, he’s got obvious potential as a backfield disruptor.
29. Baltimore Ravens: C Peter Konz, Wisconsin
Matt Birk just re-signed, but he’s also 35 years old and will need an understudy soon enough. Konz was the linchpin of a superior Badgers line, and he’s skilled enough to help out at guard until he’s needed at center.
30: San Francisco 49ers: TE Coby Fleener, Stanford
49er coach Jim Harbaugh won’t get a shot at his former Stanford QB, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help his new offensive with one of his old college players.
Fleener was a top target for Andrew Luck last season—34 catches, 667 yards and 10 TDs—and he’ll be a terrific sidekick for Vernon Davis in San Francisco.
31. New England Patriots: CB Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
Gilmore is likely a safer pick than Janoris Jenkins (who’s a character concern after getting thrown off the Florida Gators), but lacks Jenkins’ sheer athletic ability.
That’s not to say that the Gamecock corner doesn’t have some talent in his own right—he posted a 4.44 40 time at the combine—and he’s shown solid ball skills with four picks and seven passes defensed as a junior.
New England would probably prefer a safety, but with Mark Barron gone, there isn’t a prospect on Gilmore’s level at that position. They’ll settle for an outstanding cover corner to shore up the league’s second-worst pass defense.
32. New York Giants: OLB Zach Brown, North Carolina
Zach Brown is a top-10 athlete, but he’s a victim of the current popularity of 3-4 defensive fronts. Most teams looking for OLBs want a pure pass rusher rather than a balanced contributor like Brown (105 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks).
The Giants, though, need a versatile playmaker for their 4-3 set, and Brown is a steal at this spot. He’s more dynamic than either Michael Boley or Mathias Kiwanuka, so New York can pick which side to start him on.