It's never too early to start thinking ahead. The NFL season always has plenty of surprises in store for us, but generally the biggest holes on a team before the season end up being the biggest holes on a team after the season. This allows us to project the best intersections of top 2013 NFL Draft talent and the NFL franchises who need them.
The group of elite talents eligible for the 2013 draft is anchored by a potential bumper crop of franchise quarterbacks, but it has something to offer to the pros at every level of the offense and defense.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the top talents, but instead the ones who have the most ideal matches with specific NFL teams.
The Jaguars aren't ready to give up on Blaine Gabbert yet, but I am.
Gabbert's lack of mental toughness in the pocket is the kind of thing that young quarterbacks have trouble shrugging off—ask David Carr. Gabbert (and general manager Gene Smith) have one more year to get this going in the right direction. If they don't, the team should be poised to pick in the top 10 again and nab a top quarterback.
This isn't necessarily a prediction that Jacksonville will be picking top three. I expect them to make a good showing on defense and in the running game again. I also don't expect Barkley to be a top five pick because he lacks outstanding physical attributes.
He's a good match because Barkley is a steady quarterback who executes crisply in a pro-style offense. The Jaguars don't need a game-changer at quarterback, just a player who will keep the pass offense viable and make good decisions so Maurice Jones-Drew and the defense's efforts aren't in vain.
The Cardinals are going to face up to the harsh reality that they don't have the quarterback of the future on their roster.
Some watch Logan Thomas and see Cam Newton. I also see Ben Roethlisberger—the quarterback that Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt groomed during the first three years of his career.
Thomas has terrific size, mobility and arm strength. With two playmakers with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on the outside, he'll do more to maximize the passing game potential in Arizona than Kevin Kolb or John Skelton could do at their best. The Cardinals defense came on in 2011, and the team might be too good to pick early enough to land Thomas, but they would be wise to pay whatever takes to get him unless the price approaches Robert Griffin III levels.
Shonn Greene is not getting done. Neither is Joe McKnight. Bilal Powell looked overwhelmed when he stepped on the field last year, and Terrance Ganaway is a long shot. The Jets next good starting running back is not on the roster.
The Jets may be going into the great unknown with Mark Sanchez, who needs a strong running game to keep defenses honest. It might be Tim Tebow, who opens things up for a power runner like Lattimore. It could be none of the above, which only underscores the need to get the running game right to give the new quarterback a wider berth.
Lattimore isn't quite on the Trent Richardson level as a prospect, but he's at least a Jonathan Stewart. That pegs him in the mid-first, about exactly where the Jets will be again this year unless they unexpectedly have a quarterback excel this year.
Browns General Manager Tom Heckert solved the team's issues at running back, quarterback and right tackle this year in the draft.
With any luck, Greg Little will help stabilize the wide receiver corps, and the team can focus on finding a big upgrade from the Frostee Rucker, Juqua Parker platoon that will line up opposite Jabaal Sheard.
Alex Okafor is a big, powerful end who can more than hold his own against the run, but he also has the quickness and athleticism to get after the quarterback on third down. The makeup of this year's class demonstrated how hard it is to find an elite 4-3 defensive end prospect.
If the Browns can nab Okafor next year, it would go a long way toward solidifying a defense that was the better side of the ball for the team last year.
The Rams did take big wide receiver Brian Quick in the second round this year, but he won't stretch defenses.
They took the speedy Chris Givens in the fourth, but he won't win jump balls and otherwise provide a mismatch with smaller cornerbacks. Danario Alexander has size and speed, but he can't stay healthy.
Only Hunter's Randy Moss-esque skill set can give the Rams the equalizer they need to balance the threat that Steven Jackson will provide in the running game for the last few years of his career. Hunter, like Lattimore, has to prove that his considerable physical gifts are intact after suffering an ACL tear last year.
As long as he does, he'll be a candidate to go in the top 10, which is where the Rams will be picking in 2013.
The offense got all of the love in the Colts draft this year—next year it's the defense's turn. They are still in decent shape up front with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, in addition to underrated fifth-round pick Josh Chapman, but the secondary is bereft of top talents.
Amerson is an aggressive size/speed corner who is similar to 2012 No. 10 overall pick Stephon Gilmore.
With the pass rush generated by Mathis and Freeney, his style will prime him to be a ball hawk hunting for the big play.
Ron Rivera might be happy with what his defensive tackles did in the last third of 2011, but they still lack the one-man gang that can free up the rest of the defensive line the way that Haloti Ngata makes the Baltimore front seven go.
Lotulelei is a 6'4" 325-pound man mountain on the defensive line who can move. He can help the defense have more hybrid looks, which is the direction the entire NFL is going on defense.
ESPN's Todd McShay already had Lotulelei going first overall in his first 2013 mock draft, so maybe he is a pipe dream for a Panthers team on the rise.
The Chiefs are good enough to win the AFC West again now that Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles are back, but Matt Cassel will keep them from doing anything in the postseason. The Chiefs have weapons in the passing game like Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin and fourth-round pick Devon Wylie, but Cassel can't unlock the potential their talent presents.
Smith might be the best pure passer of the draft-eligible quarterbacks, but he's not physically gifted like Thomas or coming from a quarterback factory like Barkley. The Chiefs might be picking in the 20s, which is not out of the question for an underrated prospect like Smith.