It's impossible to predict the final 2012 NFL standings with any accuracy, but if you want to mock the first round of next year's draft, you have to stick your neck out and take a shot. We can see the winds of change blowing around a few teams, and there are some teams that look like they will be stuck in the doldrums for yet another season. By projecting the order of finish of all 32 teams and adding in the current beliefs about the 2013 NFL draft-eligible prospects, we can take a stab at seeing how teams will be able to help themselves next year...because there's always a next year.
The Dolphins don't really want to be starting Ryan Tannehill right now. It's just that David Garrard is hurt and Matt Moore is a poor practice player, so they can't give him the job when Tannehill is clearly outperforming him. That doesn't mean Tannehill is ready for the task ahead of him, and it will show when the regular season starts. The right side of the offensive line and wide receiver corps are also big problems, but there are no prospects at either one of those spots worthy of a number one overall pick. Star Lotulelei is a terrific interior defensive lineman who fits in any scheme and any set, and the Dolphins would be smart to nab him if they choose first next year.
I like what general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen are doing, I really do. It's just that the offensive line, secondary, and wide receiver group are all riddled with problem areas. Carson Palmer is probably not a long-term answer at quarterback, so the team is lucky that he wasn't good enough to lead them to a playoff berth and loss of their first-round pick in 2013. McKenzie values production and intangibles over tools, and that will lead him to Barkley if the Raiders are drafting early enough to land him next year.
Head coach Greg Schiano is trying to do something like turning around a cruise ship in Tampa. The team culture was left in a terrible state of disrepair by Raheem Morris, and this will be a season to weed out players who don't fit in the new regime and establish the new way for the Buccaneers. The NFC South is extremely tough and the Bucs will be lucky to win more than one or two divisional games this year. On the plus side, being high in the draft order will give the Buccaneers a chance to take the elite cornerback they passed on this year.
It is impossible to put a mock 2013 NFL Draft first round together without including the Rams in the top ten. They have problems at wide receiver, offensive tackle, outside linebacker, safety and cornerback, and they aren't going to get that much better this season in any scenario. After the bust of 2009 first-round pick Jason Smith, they'll need to line up one of the better tackles in the draft with one of their two first-round picks. If Joeckel can hang in the SEC, he'll probably be considered the best in the 2013 crop.
The Cardinals have major quarterback and offensive line problems. Their special teams and defense led them to a 7-2 record over the last nine games last year, but since then, many teams in the NFC have made much more marked improvements in free agency and the draft than the Cardinals did. The Cards will be forced to start John Skelton, and the league-worst offensive tackles will leave him exposed to make terrible decisions and sabotage games. The only question about the Cardinals first-round pick next year is how good of a quarterback prospect they'll get. As far as pure tools, they don't get better than Thomas.
The Vikings used to have the middle of the defensive front held down with Pat and Kevin Williams, but Fat Pat is no longer around and Kevin is no longer the player he used to be. Minnesota could make some strides on both sides of the ball this year, but they are stuck in a division with three playoff quality teams, so it will be difficult to climb out of the bottom 10. Hankins can be that immovable object/irresistible force in the mold of the Williamses and help them catch the Lions, Packers, and Bears (oh my!) in the future.
Seven overall might be optimistic for the Browns, but if they can win five or six games and get out of the top five, that will probably be a good sign for the future of Brandon Weeden. There is going to be nearly complete turnover in the Browns organization in the offseason, so while we can't rule out a quarterback, the defensive end class is also strong, and the Browns need someone to complement Jabaal Sheard. If they get Montgomery, we may think of Sheard as his sidekick very soon.
The Colts seem to have put their disastrous 2011 behind them, and Andrew Luck looks to be ahead of even the most optimistic schedule this preseason. Eighth might seem like a stretch in the positive direction for a team with so much transition, but the Colts aren't as bad as they looked last year. Wherever they pick, the focus will have to be on defense, as general manager Ryan Grigson spent the team's first four picks on offense this year. Hunt is a freakishly athletic giant who could have the same effect in Indianapolis that JJ Watt had in Houston last year.
This pick might seem shocking at first, but if the Cowboys return to the top 10 of the draft, it makes a lot of sense. Tony Romo will be 34 and a free agent in 2014. He will have done everything he can do for the team, which amounts to exactly one playoff win. There will be no reason for Jerry Jones to re-up Romo at sky-high prices when young quarterbacks are going for cheap under the new CBA. Wilson may play his way into the top five this year, and it's hard to see him outside of the top 10 in any scenario.
The Jaguars are likely to be stuck outside of the top five because of the quality defense and running game, but still in the top half of the draft because of their poor quarterback play. Blaine Gabbert and general manager Gene Smith will be on the way out, and a new starting quarterback will be on the way in. Bray has the boldness to get the most value out of Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, something Gabbert has lacked.
It is hard to picture the Jets going any direction but quarterback, but if Rex Ryan isn't fired, he may focus on the final piece for a defensive juggernaut. The Jets defense may also keep them from being bad enough to land a top quarterback prospect. The team could also have a losing season, but unlike the Broncos, decide to stick with Tim Tebow, because their running game/defense blueprint fits him well. Jones is one of many talented speed rushers in this class who could be tempting for the Jets because they lack a difference maker that can create pressure from the edge on defense.
Bills fans are eager for a renaissance this year, but it might not be in the cards if they don't get stretch defenses. If the Bills do fall short of the playoffs and once again find themselves in the no man's land of the 8-12 range in the first round, Hunter could be the tonic to get them out of there for the foreseeable future. He is a Randy Moss-esque talent who will open things up for the rest of the offense. If Hunter looks like his old self this year, number 12 might be conservatively low for his stock.
The Panthers have gotten a lot of things right in a short time after being the worst team in the league in 2010, but they still need to nail down their right tackle position. Much like this year, if they can't overtake Atlanta and New Orleans, they'll pick lower than they should with the talent they have on the roster. With one more missing piece like Lewan, the transformation back to playoff contender could be completed in 2013. This about as low as this team on the rise will pick next year.
The Chargers are in the unfamiliar position of being less than best in the division for consecutive years, and with left tackle Jared Gaither ailing, they should be there again in the 2013 NFL Draft. AJ Smith never takes offensive linemen in the first round, but after three straight years of losing the division crown, perhaps he will start to rethink this strategy. If Gaither can't get healthy, both tackle positions will be big questions in 2013 and beyond.
Steelers faithful won't like seeing their team projected outside of the playoffs, but the defense is getting old and the offensive line is having to turn to Max Starks...again. Todd Haley's offense might be volatile, and there are new players being broken in at every level of the defense. This could be that "correction" year that the Steelers experience every four or five seasons to get some things in order. James Harrison's recent knee surgery should be all the team requires to put a priority on taking an outside linebacker early next season unless 2011 fifth-round pick Chris Carter is a revelation.
The Rams are fortunate to have multiple first-round picks next year, because they'll need them. Janoris Jenkins may pay off this year, but the cornerback depth chart is still very thin. The quality of the Rams pick could be all over the board. If rookie Robert Griffin can hit and stay healthy, they just might make the playoffs. If Griffin gets banged up, or the pro game seems overwhelming in his debut season, the Rams could have two top five picks.
The Lions seemed to have everything going in the right direction coming out of the 2011 season, but the 2012 offseason reversed that momentum with enough arrests to make the team the laughingstock of the league. The offseason also saw a contract battle with Cliff Avril that will likely end with Avril entering free agency next year. Kyle Vanden Bosch is in the autumn of his career. Willie Young might be a diamond in the rough, but without Avril, the Lions will have to be looking defensive end in the first round next year, whether or not they make the playoffs.
I'm not feeling Peyton Manning automatically putting the Broncos over the top again in the AFC West. In fact, the Kansas City Chiefs have an edge on the Broncos at most positions that aren't quarterback. The cornerback comparison is probably close to a draw, but long term, the Broncos are staring at a future without Champ Bailey, and the other starter, Tracy Porter, is only signed to a one-year deal. Whether they make the postseason or not, the Broncos have to reload at corner next year.
It might seem mind-boggling to have the Giants missing the playoffs the year after winning the Super Bowl, but if any number of things hadn't broken their way last year, they would have missed the playoffs instead of winning a championship. The NFC East is tough, and the NFC wild card race will also be fierce, so the Giants can't afford any letdown. If they do miss the playoffs, an offensive line in flux will be one of the big reasons why. The Giants aren't that easy to forecast in the first round of the draft, but they did go for a need position last year.
The Seahawks might have hit in the third round this year to find their starting quarterback of the future. If Woods is still there when they choose in the first round next year, they could look to their head coach's old stomping grounds to get their number one wide receiver of the future. Woods is a top 15 talent, but his slow-healing ankle could cause pause at the combine when the doctors give him the old once-over. Woods would be a perfect downfield target for Russell Wilson if Sidney Rice's durability problems cause his sun to set prematurely.
The Titans should be right in the mix for a wild card spot this year as long as their decision to start Jake Locker ends up being the right one. They were knocking on the door last year with no Kenny Britt and an uninspired Chris Johnson. The Titans have plugged one defensive end hole with the signing of Kamerion Wimbley, but 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan has done little to distinguish himself in training camp. If Kendall Wright hadn't fallen to them, Whitney Mercilus might have been the pick this year. With a deep defensive end class on tap, the Titans should focus on the position in their first-round search next year.
It's hard to picture a Bears defense without Brian Urlacher in the middle, but with yet another knee surgery, it's time for the Bears to plan the post-Urlacher era. The Bears hosted the NFC Championship game after the 2010 season, and they would have made the playoffs last year if Jay Cutler had stayed healthy. So even if Urlacher isn't his old self this year, they should return to the playoffs. Luckily for them, inside linebacker is one of the devalued positions at draft time, so they should be able to land the heir to Urlacher's spot even in the later part of the first round.
The Saints were the first high-powered pass offense in the NFC South, but the Falcons are well on their way to copycatting the team from the Big Easy, and there's also a young quarterback named Cam Newton in the division. While the team has the firepower to make the playoffs again, asking for more than one or two postseason games is probably too much without head coach Sean Payton. Adding an aggressive corner like Gilbert will help the Saints defense in the ever-escalating passing game arms race.
The Bengals signed Benjarvus Green-Ellis to a modest contract, and they will get modest production for their modest investment. If the Bengals can return to the playoffs, they'll have to be looking for ways to get their team to the next level, and adding an elite athlete and workhorse in the running game is the best way for them to do that. Lattimore is coming off of a torn ACL, and he'll be long gone by pick 24 if he looks the way he did before he suffered the injury last season.
The Chiefs have the talent on both sides of the ball to win their division, and perhaps even win a home playoff game in Arrowhead, as I have projected them to do in this mock draft. However, as long as Matt Cassel is their quarterback, they won't advance farther in the playoffs without some amazing luck. Geno Smith is not an elite athlete, but his arm strength and mental toughness are NFL ready, and he would represent an improvement over Cassel as a passer by year two or three of his career.
The Eagles did the right thing by spending their first three picks on defense this year. The defensive line and outside linebacker groups got massive upgrades. The depth chart at safety still looks poor despite multiple early picks like Nate Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett being thrown at the situation in the last few years. With some good health from Michael Vick and the avoidance of the horrible collapses in the second halves of games the team had last year, the Eagles should advance in the playoffs, but the deep middle of the secondary will keep them from going the distance. McDonald's combination of size, smarts, and athleticism could make him the Mark Barron of the 2013 class, so the Eagles (or any team) might be lucky to see him this late in the first round.
The Ravens in the Joe Flacco era may end up driving their fans to an early grave. They are good enough to get deep into the playoffs and entertain visions of a second Super Bowl championship. Somehow in the end, they are always defeated and general manager Ozzie Newsome has to try to figure out why and try to address it every April. Baltimore locked down one long-term starting wide receiver in the second round last year in Torrey Smith. The end of the first round (which is where they seem to be every year now), is the perfect territory to land a lethal counterpart like Allen for their speedster Smith.
The Falcons appear to be ready to leverage the huge investment they made in Julio Jones into an actual playoff win for Matt Ryan, but can they do more? Problems on the offensive line made it hard to predict them going farther than the divisional round, although anything is possible when a team has a 21st century passing game, just ask the Saints. The Falcons would be happy to add a versatile, battle-tested talent like Jones in the late first.
After placing Kendall Wright in the first round of this year's draft, and Josh Gordon in the second round of next year's draft, the Baylor Bears might not be done yet. The Houston Texans have the defense and running game in place, but after Andre Johnson, their receiver corps is devoid of proven talent. With a healthy Matt Schaub, the franchise should get to conference championship weekend, but without a well-rounded passing game to stretch defenses out, that might be the end of the line for them. Williams would be a welcome addition.
The Packers are certainly among the league's elite squads, but a few weak links in their front seven may be too much to overcome when the margin of error is so slim and they have already lost their best inside linebacker for the season. More beef up front on the defensive line will do wonders to help Clay Matthews and Nick Perry get to the quarterback. They spent a second-round pick on Jerel Worthy last year, but he is more of a pass rush and penetrating specialist. Next year, they can add his gargantuan teammate.
The 49ers were let down by a lapse in special teams last year, or we might be talking about them as a Super Bowl team, if not Super Bowl champs. They should be right there again this season, assuming even a little improvement from Alex Smith with the addition of Randy Moss. When it comes time for them to go shopping for upgrades in the draft next year, the edge rush could be a priority with only adequate options like Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson opposite Aldon Smith. Like Bruce Irvin, Porter might not be a great all-around option, but for a team looking to boost their pass rush, he fits the bill.
The Patriots return to the big game, and this time, they come home with the Lombardi Trophy. The great play right out of the box by rookies Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones would likely be a big part of that success if it comes to pass, so why not go back to the well the following year? Reid is a big hitter who can also patrol the deep middle with great size for an athletic safety. Pairing him with Patrick Chung would make the Patriots defense very formidable in shootouts initiated by Tom Brady and company.