The NFL draft is growing tantalizingly close, and on April 26 the eyes of football fanatics everywhere will be turned to New York City as the first 32 rookies of the 2012 NFL draft class will discover where they will be plying their trade as professionals.
Most mock drafts attempt to predict how the draft will play out, but I'm going to take a bit of a different tack with this mock and attempt to predict what the best possible picks for each team will be rather than adhere to the tried-and-true philosophy of hammering a square pick into a round hole.
1. Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
2. Washington Redskins (from St. Louis Rams): Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is already visiting Griffin in the hopes of better preparing the Heisman Trophy winner for the jump to the NFL, and you don't do that for players you aren't planning on drafting.
3. Minnesota Vikings: Matt Kalil, OT, USC
The Vikings' best bet is to address an offensive line that was among the worst in the NFL last year by adding the draft's best tackle prospect, who would be an immediate upgrade over Charlie Johnson on the left side.
4. Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Former Colts executive Bill Polian called Richardson one of three "sure things" in this year's draft. The Browns need offensive playmakers in the worst way imaginable, and a "sure thing" running back sounds like a good place to start.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Ronde Barber was once a great pro, but he is now 36 years old and Aqib Talib is facing the possibility of jail time, so the Buccaneers would be well-served to look at upgrading their secondary early in the 2012 draft by adding last year's Thorpe Award winner as college's football's top defensive back
6. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins): Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
The two-time Biletnikoff winner racked up more than 3,300 receiving yards over the past two seasons. Quarterback Sam Bradford badly needs a top target in the passing game, especially after Brandon Lloyd bolted in free agency.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
The 6'0" cornerback would be a big boost to a Jacksonville secondary that had its share of problems a year ago, and NFL draft expert Mike Mayock was singing Gilmore's praises even before his recent climb up draft boards.
8. Miami Dolphins: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
Given how desperate for a franchise quarterback the Dolphins are after failing to acquire Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn in free agency, there's next to no chance the Dolphins wouldn't draft Ryan Tannehill here, but that doesn't make him the best possible move for the franchise.
Starting right tackle Marc Colombo was absolutely atrocious last season, and 313-pound tackle Riley Reiff, who was an All-Big Ten performer in 2011, would seem a logical fit, according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald.
He's perfect for the Dolphins to fill the void at right tackle—even though he played left tackle at Iowa. And, of course, his connections to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz makes him a natural for the Dolphins because Miami coaches Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman know and respect Ferentz and value his players.
9. Carolina Panthers: Michael Brockers, DT, LSU
The Panthers defense was vulnerable up the middle a year ago, ranking 25th against the run, and the 322-pound Brockers has the potential to be a force on the Carolina defensive line for years to come that would immediately help solidify their run defense.
10. Buffalo Bills: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
The Bills would like to address the offensive tackle spot here with Demetress Bell now in Philadelphia, but with Reiff off the board it's either attempt to trade down or upgrade the offensive skill positions by adding the streaking Floyd.
11. Kansas City Chiefs: Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Poe's draft stock has leveled off quite a bit after his explosion at February's combine, but the 346-pounder has the prototypical size for the 3-4 front and the Chiefs have a hole at the position with Kelly Gregg a free agent and considering retirement.
12. Seattle Seahawks: Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
Chris Clemons has developed into an excellent pass-rusher for the Seahawks, but Seattle needs to get him some help, as even with Clemons' 11 sacks last year the team still ranked a mediocre 19th in the NFL in sacks.
13. Arizona Cardinals: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama
The Cardinals generated very little pass rush from the outside linebacker position in 2011. The 6'2" 272-pound All-American didn't have a good combine or pro day, but he has an excellent collegiate resume and experience playing in the 3-4 defense.
14. Dallas Cowboys: Mark Barron, SS, Alabama
Alabama strong safety Barron was an All-American after posting 66 tackles, two interceptions and a sack in 2011. The Cowboys still need secondary help even after adding cornerback Brandon Carr, and the large contingent of Dallas personnel at Alabama's recent pro day may be telling.
15. Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
The addition of the aforementioned Bell mitigates some of the team's need on the offensive line after left tackle Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon, so the Eagles should look to upgrade the middle of the defensive line next to Cullen Jenkins with the athletic Cox.
16. New York Jets: Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Illinois
The New York Jets ranked 17th in the NFL in sacks last season, but that statistic was skewed somewhat by the fact that Rex Ryan blitzed almost constantly to generate pressure, leaving the defense vulnerable in coverage.
Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus led all FBS players with 16 sacks in 2011. The 6'4", 261-pounder would certainly seem to have the quickness to kick to 3-4 outside linebacker, and Mike Tanier of Yahoo! Sports feels Mercilus can make an impact right away.
Mercilus is a cut above the Andre Branch-style pass rush prospect because he has an inside dimension to his game and has learned to be an effective hand fighter. His upside is very high, and his effort and hustle are exemplary. He can step into a situational pass rush role as a rookie and will probably be a handful.
This is a rare instance of best player available meets area of need, as the Bengals could use an upgrade at the guard position and DeCastro is a two-time consensus All-American and best prospect at the position in this class, making this pick the proverbial no-brainer.
18. San Diego Chargers: Shea McClellin, DE/OLB, Boise State
The San Diego Chargers struggled mightily sacking quarterbacks last year. Outside of linebacker Antwan Barnes, no player for the San Diego Chargers had more than four sacks, and the team finished 23rd in the NFL in that category, so upgrading the pass rush is a priority for the team.
19. Chicago Bears: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
The Bears are still looking to upgrade the defensive line after losing out on Mario Williams in free agency, and the presence of Julius Peppers would keep the 6'6", 281-pound Coples from seeing many double-teams as a rookie.
20. Tennessee Titans: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Alabama cornerback Kirkpatrick is a physical run-defender, a trait the 6'2", 186-pound second-team All-American shares with Cortland Finnegan, whom the Titans recently lost in free agency and badly need to replace.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Luke Kuechly, MLB, Boston College
This pick has as much to do with my lack of faith in Rey Maualuga as the long-term solution in the middle of the Bengals defense as anything. I think he's better suited to the strong side in the NFL, which frees up the middle for college football's leading tackler.
22. Cleveland Browns (from Atlanta Falcons): Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia
The Browns need offensive playmakers as badly as any team in the NFL, but the thought of the holes that the 345-pound mauling run-blocker could open for Trent Richardson may be too good to pass up, not to mention that the right side of the Cleveland line needs help.
23. Detroit Lions: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State
The Lions need upgrades in the defensive backfield, but with injury and legal concerns dotting the offensive backfield as well the capable and versatile Martin would at the very least provide depth and could easily thrive in the Detroit offense.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama
I have probably mocked this pick more than any other this spring, as the release of veteran James Farrior after a decade in Pittsburgh potentially leaves the Steelers with a very big hole in the middle of their defense.
All-American linebacker Dont'a Hightower tallied 85 tackles and four sacks while helping lead Alabama to the national championship a season ago, and the 6'2", 265-pound junior would be a great fit with the blue-collar Steelers, according to Mike Tanier of Yahoo! Sports.
Hightower is "high-floor" player. With his size, athleticism, and Saban training, he is all but guaranteed to be a productive starter who can contribute right away.
Sometimes, high-floor players are perceived as "low ceiling" players with limited upside, but that is not a fair assessment of Hightower. It's better to think of him as a "low glory" player: He will play glamour-less positions like inside linebacker in a 3-4 or the strong side in a 4-3, recording 100 tackles and a handful of sacks while teammates make the highlight reels.
25. Denver Broncos: Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati
The Broncos may be tempted to treat new quarterback Peyton Manning with an offensive weapon here, but the team would be best served to plug the middle of a defensive front that was the Achilles' heel of the Denver defense in 2011.
26. Houston Texans: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
Baylor wideout and Texas native Wright was ludicrously productive as a senior in Waco in 2011, topping 100 catches and 1,600 receiving yards. Wright would finally provide the Texans with the threat at receiver next to Andre Johnson that the team has lacked for years.
USC defensive end Perry led the Pac-12 in sacks in 2011, and a Patriots defense in need of pass-rush help would appreciate his ability to play end in a 4-3 front or kick to outside linebacker in 3-4 defensive looks, an asset in Bill Belichick's multiple fronts defenses.
28. Green Bay Packers: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson
The Packers defense ranked dead last in the National Football League a season ago, due in large part to a "pass rush" that generated only 29 sacks. Branch tallied 9.5 sacks for the Tigers last year, and the 6'4", 259-pounder would be an excellent bookend for Clay Matthews.
29. Baltimore Ravens: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech
Anquan Boldin was a shadow of his former self last year for the Ravens, logging his lowest reception total since 2004. With Boldin seemingly nearing the end of the line the Ravens need to procure his heir, and the 6'4" Hill certainly seems to have speed and upside to burn.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford
A fantastic showing at Stanford's pro day has propelled Fleener to the top spot where this year's tight end class is concerned, and Fleener's old college coach has the opportunity to create a daunting duo of tight ends similar to New England's in the Bay Area. Wide receivers...who needs 'em?
31. New England Patriots: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
The Patriots secondary is an absolute mess, but Bill Belichick isn't the type to reach based on need. So, the team could continue to overhaul the front seven by adding another versatile player in the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, who can play 3-4 defensive end or 4-3 defensive tackle.
32. New York Giants: David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
Ahmad Bradshaw's troublesome foot is already acting up, Brandon Jacobs is now in San Francisco, and Andre Brown got himself suspended. That hole at the running back spot will motivate the defending champs to make Wilson, who topped 1,700 rushing yards last year, the third running back and final pick of the first round.