It's preseason, but that doesn't mean that it's too early to think about how the 2012 NFL season will shake out and which current college stars will be targeted in the first round. Many of these predictions will look silly in a few months, but it is always an enriching exercise to think about where teams will be picking in the next NFL draft and who they may consider at those picks.
Just slotting the 32 teams will remind you that the St. Louis Rams have an extra first-rounder next year and that there will be some good teams missing the playoffs this year in the NFC.
How would a draft play out based on a current estimation of player stock and NFL power rankings?
Cornerbacks with Amerson's size, speed, athleticism and ball skills don't come along very often. The Rams still need a corner even if Janoris Jenkins hits and stays out of trouble. With the new rookie pay scale, going away from the elite pay positions early won't sting too much.
The Rams still have a ton of holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Offensive tackle would also make sense, but there may not be one worth a top-three pick this year.
Of course, while this player/team/slot combination makes sense, if the Rams do pick first overall, look for them to do exactly what they did this year: auction the pick off to the highest bidder that wants a quarterback.
Sure, the Browns just spent a first-round pick on a quarterback, but that was the Mike Holmgren regime. The Joe Banner regime will have their own priorities, and unless Brandon Weeden hits the ground running, hand-picking a franchise quarterback should be at the top of that list. If the Browns are sitting at No. 2, chances are, Weeden's rookie year was a bust.
Defensive end or cornerback are also good possibilities for a team that will have to make their first-round pick count since they spent their second-round pick in the supplemental draft to land wide receiver Josh Gordon.
New Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has no investment in Carson Palmer turning out to be the answer for the Raiders. This is a transition year for the team to figure out who fits with new head coach Dennis Allen and McKenzie and who doesn't. A poor record and top-five pick is far from unlikely, and that would give the Raiders the rare chance to get a franchise quarterback through the draft.
Wilson has great arm strength and pocket presence, giving him the ability to pilot a high-flying passing game that will keep things opened up for Darren McFadden.
The Colts are a work in progress on both sides of the ball, so it would be a mild surprise if they aren't back in the top five next year. After spending the first four picks on a quarterback and passing game targets for that quarterback this year, look for general manager Ryan Grigson to switch his focus to the defense in 2013. After all, Chuck Pagano is a defensive-minded head coach, and the team has few long-term answers in its starting 11 right now.
Pagano saw first-hand how disruptive a giant tenacious athlete like Haloti Ngata can be in Baltimore, so Lotulelei makes a ton of sense for the Colts. He'll help get the most out of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis while they're in the autumn of their careers.
Another year picking in the top 10, and the Blaine Gabbert (not to mention general manager Gene Smith) experiment is over. Thomas is a huge, rugged quarterback who will fit well in a team built around defense and a good backfield.
Thomas has the best raw tools of the 2013 NFL draft-eligible quarterback class, but he is also far from pro-ready at this juncture. If he can show advancement in 2012, he might take the mantle as the top quarterback and No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
The Buccaneers are going to play a hard-nosed brand of football under head coach Greg Schiano, so a massive bruiser on the defensive line like Hankins will be welcomed with open arms. Hankins is well over 300 pounds, giving him the heft to anchor against double teams, but he is also athletic enough to move around the defensive line and get pressure on the quarterback.
The Buccaneers have spent early picks on defensive ends recently, but they haven't hit on any defensive tackle picks. If they finish last in the NFC South again this year, they'll be in prime position to land a difference-maker in the trenches on defense.
Here's a pick that will bring back more memories of Randy Moss than Troy Williamson in Minnesota. Percy Harvin should have his new deal, and Hunter would then be added to take the tops off of defenses and open up more room for Harvin and Adrian Peterson operate closer to the line of scrimmage.
Hunter suffered a torn ACL last year, but if he can get all of his speed and explosiveness back this year, he should be the no-brainer first wide receiver off of the board. His straight-line jets, size and game in the air make him a rare prospect that shouldn't fall out of the top 10.
The Jets just have the feeling of a team on the verge of a meltdown. The personnel moves have wreaked of desperation, and Rex Ryan's vaunted team chemistry looks more like a fourth-grader's science fair project. Mark Sanchez has little to no confidence, and Tim Tebow isn't going to be a long-term solution for any NFL team (now, north of the border, that could be another story).
Bray has plenty of derring-do and arm strength, and while he seems a little volatile, he'll embody a big improvement in the outlook of the Jets passing game. It is important to note that the class of draft-eligible quarterbacks this year is going to be very strong if none of the prospects drop the ball this year.
The Dolphins were already thin at wide receiver before Chad Johnson embarrassed the team for the last time; now they are practically starving for production at the position. It would be a shock to see the team go in any direction but best wide receiver available in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
Woods isn't a typical top-10 wide receiver in that he's not a size/speed freak with rare measurables. As long as his ankle checks out, he'll be in consideration for selection with a premium pick because of his speed, quickness, toughness, hands and technical savvy at the position.
Five quarterbacks in the first 10 picks might seem outlandish, but there are a number of factors at play intersecting here. The 2013 NFL draft-eligible class is deep, and poor quarterback play is usually what gets a team into the top 10 of the draft in the first place. The new CBA makes taking a starting quarterback in the top 10 picks a much more tolerable gamble than it did in years past.
Smith might be the most mentally tough quarterback in this class, which is one of the most important indicators of pro success. He is not a well-known quarterback outside of draft circles, but that is set to change this year.
The Cowboys faithful won't like seeing the team once again languishing in the middle of the first round, but offensive line and wide receiver depth issues are already popping up and it's not even September. Anthony Spencer is playing under a one-year franchise tag contract, so the team will be looking to reload at outside rush linebacker in the 2013 NFL draft.
Lucky for them, it's a good class of OLB/DE 'tweener edge rushers, and the quarterback depth could push one of the elite prospects into their lap in the mid-first. Mingo qualifies, and he would be a starter from day one, joining his teammate and Cowboys' 2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne.
The left tackle class is without a clear leader right now, but Joeckel can change that with a strong 2012 campaign. It's not San Diego general manager AJ Smith's style to go offensive line in the first round, but another year outside of the playoffs may open his mind to other strategies.
Jared Gaither has been a savior at left tackle, but his back is acting up, and the depth chart at right tackle is one of the worst pictures at the position in the league. If the Chargers have the chance to take the first offensive tackle off of the board in 2013, they would be foolish to pass that up.
With the news that former number two overall pick Jason Smith has officially been demoted to the second team, the Rams have to target offensive tackle in the draft or free agency next year. We're not even sure that Rodger Saffold can stay healthy and hold down the other spot, so this is a big reason that I have the Rams picking first overall.
The Rams have to avoid letting Sam Bradford become the next David Carr, losing his nerve because of the relentless pressure he faces game after game. Faulk should be ready for the NFL considering the fact that he faces two blue-chip NFL pass-rush prospects, Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, in practice every week.
The Titans signed Kamerion Wimbley after he was a Raiders cap casualty, but the other defensive end spot is still a question mark with 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan failing to distinguish himself. Tennessee has the pieces in place on offense to flourish, but another stalwart edge-rusher would make a huge difference in its long-term prospects in the AFC South.
Montgomery is long, strong and athletic, and he fits well as a pure 4-3 defensive end, a commodity that is getting harder to find in the draft these days. He could easily go a lot higher than 14th overall.
The Seahawks are always willing to rank their board based on their specific needs and ignore players' values on other teams' boards. Fluker is very similar to 2011 first-round pick James Carpenter, which is no surprise because he also played at Alabama. It's time for the Seahawks to start to wonder if Carpenter will ever be able to play right tackle after he returns from his severe knee injury, which might not be any time soon.
Fluker is perfect for the job of blasting defenders back to clear holes for Marshawn Lynch.
Jahvid Best couldn't do it. Kevin Smith will get another chance, but he hasn't done it for any sustained period of time. Mikel Leshoure may never even have a chance to do it. That won't stop Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz from trying to get the running back to lead his rushing offense again, with defenses focused on stopping Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
Lattimore suffered a torn ACL last year, but like Justin Hunter, he should be the easy top player at his position next year if he regains pre-injury form.
Tracy Porter is only signed to a one-year deal, and Champ Bailey is in the later stages of his career. The Broncos are going to have to rebuild in the secondary, and Rhodes can be a big part of that. He's a big, physical corner, although he has to show that he's completely over his offseason knee surgery to get first-round consideration in 2013.
Note that the Broncos are on the outside of the playoffs looking in. I don't believe that the addition of Peyton Manning makes them a no-brainer division champ, and I still see holes on both sides of the ball that may prevent them from repeating as division winners now that the Chiefs have gotten their two best players back from early season-ending injuries in 2011.
The Bengals have a great young core on offense and defense, but they may fall short of the playoffs this year simply because of their schedule and inexperience. They should target a top safety in 2013 whether they return to the postseason or not because it is by far their weakest position on defense.
Reid is an ascendant talent who should emerge as a defensive star in Baton Rouge this year. With the amount of buzz Mark Barron created around draft time last year, Reid should be highly coveted if he establishes himself as the new premier safety in the SEC.
The Atlanta Falcons moved up for Julio Jones last year in their "arms race" strategy to take over the NFC South. The Saints can counter next year by getting a long, physical corner like Banks in the first round.
The loss of Sean Payton for the season, the improvement of the Carolina Panthers and the overall depth of the NFC will make it hard for the Saints to return to playoffs this year. If they do narrowly miss the postseason as I project, the offense won't be the reason why.
The Bears are another team that has the firepower to make the playoffs, but could easily miss out in the numbers game that is hard to win in the NFC. After addressing the defensive line in the first round of this year's draft, it will be time to find a future No. 1 corner and current No. 2 to play opposite Charles Tillman.
Gilbert is just getting onto the draftnik radar right now, but physically, he has a chance to be the top corner after David Amerson. He just needs to show progress in his second year as a starter. His prowess as a return man will also give his draft stock a bump.
Just a typically solid first-round pick for general manager Jerry Reese and the Giants. The team usually has a bit of a letdown the year after the Super Bowl, whether it's in the postseason or regular season, and I don't see 2012 being any different.
The offensive line is sure to be a point of emphasis in the draft next year. Jones isn't dominant, but he is good in every area of the game, and he can play just about any position on the offensive line. The Giants have been able to take advantage of versatility on the offensive line in the past, so they would find Jones an attractive prospect in the first round.
The Bills are definitely capable of landing one of the AFC's wild card spots this year, but going deep into the playoffs seems like too much to ask. A big reason for that is the lack of talent at wide receiver after Stevie Johnson. Keenan Allen could change that instantly with his size and strong game running after the catch.
Allen needs to show that he is over a 2011 injury to solidify his draft stock, like many of the top offensive skill players in the 2013 NFL draft-eligible class. If he does, the Bills would probably consider themselves fortunate to see him still on the board in the 20s.
The Panthers are a team on the rise, and they should make a run at a playoff berth this year. One big hole that will keep them from vying for a title shot is the defensive end spot opposite Charles Johnson. Greg Hardy is too erratic, and the team lacks talent after Hardy on the depth chat.
Werner is one of two European-born defensive ends who could make a big splash in the 2013 NFL draft. He is relentless with the innate power and agility to become an elite pass-rusher as he becomes more polished. Werner only started playing football at age 15, so his endless upside will attract a lot of attention in the draft.
The Chiefs are on the rise again with the team buying into Romeo Crennel's culture and the return of Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles. Matt Cassel will probably keep them from advancing in the postseason, so quarterback could be a consideration here, but I wouldn't look for them to shake things up coming off of a division title.
The defensive front seven should gel this year, but they lack talent next to Derrick Johnson in the linebacker corps. Te'o can change that instantly with his sideline-to-sideline range and advanced read and react abilities.
The latest news about James Harrison's knee surgery just underscores the Steelers' need for reinforcements in the pass-rush. 2011 fifth-rounder Chris Carter could surprise, but it's much more likely that outside linebacker will be a priority for the team going into the 2013 NFL draft.
Jones was the SEC's leading sackmaster last year, and he may not last anywhere near the mid 20's if he repeats his 2011 performance. The other question about his draft stock is how he'll test out physically. If he doesn't put up elite measurables, his production might be overshadowed when teams are making their picks in the top half of the first round.
The Falcons will be looking at defensive ends unless Ray Edwards erases the memory of his poor 2011 campaign following the big contract he got from the team in the offseason.
Jeffcoat is sure to be a first-round pick in 2013 as long as he reproduces his 2011 performance. He has the frame to be a 4-3 end, but he can also stand up and play OLB in a 3-4 defense.
He is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle suffered late in the 2011 season, but unlike some of the other top 2013 draft-eligible prospects, he hasn't had any setbacks or hitches in his comeback.
The Ravens dodged a bullet when Bryant McKinnie showed for camp after some issues getting into shape, but he is still not solid in his stance as a starter, and the team seems to be acknowledging the reality that McKinnie is not a long-term answer at left tackle.
Lewan absolutely can be that solution, and if he takes another step forward in 2012, he'll add another name to the lore of No. 77 at Michigan, along with Jake Long and Jon Jansen. He might not fall anywhere near the late 20s with a good year. He was 12th on the first 2013 draft big board of ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr.
How do you make the scariest defense in the NFL even scarier? Add a 6'8", 280 behemoth who can run a 4.6 40 and bench press 225 pounds 35 times with an 82" wingspan. Margus Hunt could punish offenses that focus their attention on Justin Smith and keep Ray McDonald and Smith fresh as a rotational handful for guards and tackles.
Hunt just started playing football in 2007, so it's fair to say that he could just be scratching the surface of his potential now that he's focused solely on football and left his world junior gold medal track career in the discus and shot put behind him.
Two-tight end offenses are the new fashion in the NFL, and Tyler Eifert is a runway model showing off his skills as the big seam-ripping pass-catcher in that look. He could be physically superior to John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph, giving him a chance to break into the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
The Eagles have Brent Celek, but he is coming off of shoulder and hernia surgery, and he is not a very dynamic athlete. Eifert could give Philadelphia the big red zone target it has been lacking, in addition to adding a wrinkle to the offense that will give defensive coordinators fits with Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson drawing coverage on the outside.
The Patriots did a ton to strengthen their linebacker corps and defensive line with twin moves up in the first round to land Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower this year. If they fall short of the Super Bowl title again, the lack of sudden edge-rushers could be a major contributing factor.
Sean Porter is no Von Miller, but he has been doing a pretty good impression of Miller since he became the No. 2 overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft. He might be a one-trick pony, but Bruce Irvin showed us to not underestimate the draft stock of speed rushers in the first round.
The Packers helped the pass-rush punch from their defensive line with the addition of Jerel Worthy in the second round this year, but the loss of Cullen Jenkins and failure of 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal has left the defensive end rotation as an area that may need more attention yet.
Okafor has the defensive tackle experience and large frame to be a good fit as a 3-4 defensive end and occasionally give some looks as a pass-rusher with his hand off of the ground. The quality and versatility of him and teammate Jackson Jeffcoat makes the Longhorns defensive line one for draftniks to watch closely this year.
The Texans came this close to beating the Ravens in Baltimore last year during the playoffs with a third-string rookie quarterback. As long as Matt Schaub stays healthy this year, they should be in the mix to get to and win their first Super Bowl. What do you get for the team that has everything, i.e. (a Lombardi Trophy)?
How about a quarterback of the future? Yes, TJ Yates was better than expected when he was thrown into the fire, but his upside is limited. Matt Schaub could get a contract extension any day now, but the team could also choose to let him play out his final year and sign him to only a modest extension because he'll be 32 next year and hasn't been the most durable.
Murray is a savvy, NFL-quality thrower and leader who could get into the first round next year due to the respect that comes with playing well in the SEC.