Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins will be one of the top players selected should he declare for the 2013 NFL draft.
The NFL season is hitting its halfway point, and the league order is finally starting to clear up.
Some teams, like the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans, are well on their way to making postseason runs, while others, such as the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, should be preparing their scouting departments to search for the right choice with a pick near the top of the draft board.
Meanwhile, the college football season is hitting its homestretch, and the players who will be first-round picks next April are setting themselves apart from the rest of the nation.
Still nearly six full months ahead of the draft, we project a look at how each of the 32 picks could turn out.
Matt Barkley has failed thus far in establishing himself as a quarterback prospect of the same caliber as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III from the 2012 NFL draft, but he is still the best quarterback in the draft class.
Of any team in the National Football League, there is no doubt that the Chiefs need a quarterback the most, and they should not pass up Barkley if they have the chance to select him.
Matt Cassel has proven not to be the answer as the Chiefs’ franchise quarterback, and Brady Quinn is subpar even as a temporary starter.
Barkley may not have elite arm strength or athleticism, but he has a good set of physical tools, is a pro-ready quarterback and has the potential to be a very good starting quarterback for many years to come.
If the Chiefs are not sold on Barkley, then West Virginia’s Geno Smith would be a great choice too. There should be no question, however, that if the Chiefs are picking at the top of the draft, their pick will be a quarterback.
Statistically, the Jacksonville Jaguars have the NFL’s worst offense this season. Their greatest needs are to add playmakers at wide receiver and revamp their offensive line, but drafting either of those positions at No. 2 would be a reach.
It could be really tough for the Jaguars to pass up West Virginia’s Geno Smith if they are in this position. While 2011 No. 10 overall pick Blaine Gabbert has started to make some strides in his second season, he still ranks dead last in the league in passing yards per attempt and per game, and he has yet to show franchise quarterback potential in two NFL seasons.
Smith is a strong-armed quarterback with a great release, and while he is not a running quarterback, he adds athleticism, mobility and pocket presence that Gabbert does not have. He may enter a tough position if he is thrown into the Jaguars’ offense, but he would be an upgrade over the struggling Gabbert.
If the Jaguars decide to stick with Gabbert, Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel or an elite pass-rusher in LSU’s Sam Montgomery would also make sense.
There are many reasons for the Carolina Panthers’ surprising struggles this season, including a lingering sophomore slump for second-year quarterback Cam Newton, but the biggest reason is that they have one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
Specifically, the Panthers really need to get bigger and stronger in the middle of their defensive line, and there is no better option in the 2013 NFL draft for doing that than Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
With a combination of massive size and tremendous strength but also quick, nimble feet, Hankins has the potential to be a superstar defensive tackle. Adding Hankins would pay immediate dividends for the Panthers’ struggling defense.
Aside from star middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, the Cleveland Browns have a serious lack of playmakers in their defensive front seven. The Browns could immediately change that by drafting the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2013 draft class, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones.
The Browns need to upgrade at outside linebacker, and Jones is a tremendous all-around player who compares favorably to Von Miller of the Denver Broncos. Jones is a great athlete who drops into coverage well and is tremendous against the run, but can also be a premier pass-rusher from the linebacker position.
The Browns could also look for a more direct pass-rusher in Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, but passing up Jones would not make much sense for them.
Pass-rushers are always one of the NFL draft’s premier positions, and the Oakland Raiders lack a premier pass-rusher on their roster. It would make a lot of sense for them to draft a pass-rushing end, and Florida State’s Bjoern Werner would be one of the best players on the board here.
Werner is a fast, athletic pass-rusher who can do it all as a 4-3 defensive end, and he would be a big upgrade over any defensive end currently on the Raiders’ roster. He has a great combination of edge pass-rushing skill, size and athleticism, and he is very good in space as a run-stopper as well.
Two LSU pass-rushers, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, would also be options for bringing more pressure against the quarterback as a top-five draft pick.
The Buffalo Bills have allowed more rushing yards per game, 176.9, than any other team in the NFL thus far this season. A big reason for that has been the poor play of their linebackers, where the Bills really need a leader and playmaker.
That makes Manti Te’o an absolutely perfect selection for the Buffalo Bills. They are going to be selecting much earlier in the draft than originally expected, and Te’o may not only be the safest pick to be a very productive player in this draft, but has the potential to be one of the league’s best middle linebackers.
Te’o is an all-around playmaker who excels as a run-stopper, but he is also aggressive and physical in pass coverage. He could be an immediate upgrade at middle linebacker but has the potential to play any linebacker position as well.
If the Tennessee Titans have a top-10 draft pick, the early pass-rushing run should continue through them. The Titans could really use an upgrade at defensive end, and Sam Montgomery is an all-around playmaker who can give the team not only a premier pass-rusher but also improve the team’s run defense.
With terrific athletic ability, great length and great pass-rushing skill, Montgomery is as good as any 4-3 defensive end prospect in this draft class.
The Titans’ biggest need is to improve the interior line, but drafting an interior lineman would be a reach as a top-10 draft pick, so upgrading the front line on the other side of the ball makes more sense.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of just three NFL teams to allow more than 300 passing yards per game thus far this season, and a big reason for that is that they have one of the NFL’s worst secondaries. The Buccaneers will likely move on from their best cornerback, Aqib Talib, who is also currently serving a four-game suspension for Adderall use, and they need to find a true No. 1 cornerback.
Having drafted another Alabama defensive back, strong safety Mark Barron, as a top-10 pick last season, it would make a lot of sense to continue building up their secondary by drafting Dee Milliner, who is the best cornerback currently in college football. He is a big, physical and aggressive cornerback with terrific pass-deflecting skills, and he would bring a new identity to the back end of the Buccaneers’ pass defense.
What the Buccaneers may need even more than a cornerback is a pass-rushing defensive end, but with Werner and Montgomery off the board, Milliner is the best choice for them here.
It would be hard to argue against the New Orleans Saints having the NFL’s worst defense. They have allowed more than 50 yards per game, more than any other team thus far this season, and need to improve at all three levels of the defense.
The Saints could very well go into this draft with a best-player-available outlook on defense, which would make perfect sense. In this case, that would be Utah’s Star Lotulelei. However, with the team’s top draft pick last season and most promising young player being another defensive tackle in Akiem Hicks, they may be better off looking for a pass-rushing defensive end.
The best fit among the top defensive ends remaining would be Texas’ Alex Okafor, who has the size, length and point-of-attack run-stopping ability to excel in a 4-3 scheme and is a very athletic pass-rusher.
Michigan State’s William Gholston may be too similar to Cameron Jordan, who has been a disappointment for the Saints, while LSU’s Barkevious Mingo is undersized for a four-man front.
The Saints’ biggest need on defense is at cornerback, so Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks is another possibility here, but Okafor is a better value.
The revolving door at offensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams has included Barry Richardson, Wayne Hunter and Joseph Barksdale, all starting games this season. All of those players are far from being starting-caliber NFL offensive linemen and illustrate a desperate need for the Rams to improve at the position.
Part of the reason for these revolving doors has been an injury to regular left tackle Rodger Saffold, but the best scenario for the Rams would be to upgrade at left tackle and make Saffold the starting right tackle. That makes Luke Joeckel the ideal first-round pick in 2013.
Joeckel is a long, athletic and physically imposing player with a complete left tackle skill set, and he would be the premier blindside protector the Rams desperately need to keep their quarterback Sam Bradford healthy.
The St. Louis Rams have one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines, but the single-worst offensive line in the league is that of the Arizona Cardinals, and it’s not even close. After a 4-0 start to the season, the Cardinals have lost four consecutive games, and the biggest reason for that has been the horrendous pass protection that has already allowed 39 sacks this season.
As the Cardinals’ draft position continues to climb while their season falls apart, the silver lining is that they are likely to be in position to draft one of the class’ two top offensive tackle prospects (should they declare). Luke Joeckel is easily the class at the position, but if he is off the board, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan would be a fine consolation prize.
Lewan would easily be an upgrade at either offensive tackle position, which would allow the team to keep Levi Brown at left tackle or move him to the right side upon his return from injury next season.
The Cardinals also need an upgrade at quarterback, but asking any quarterback to succeed with their current offensive line would be an incredibly tall task. The Cardinals have to make fixing their offensive line their top priority, especially if they have a shot at drafting Lewan.
Yet another team who badly needs to upgrade at offensive tackle is the San Diego Chargers, and offensive tackles are always put at a premium because of their importance in protecting the quarterback and making the entire offensive move forward. Therefore, even though Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews is somewhat of a reach at the No. 12 overall pick, he could be well worth it.
Matthews has the athleticism and length to potentially play left tackle, even though he is a right tackle for the Aggies. If he is unable to make that transition, he could step in as an immediate upgrade over Jeromey Clary at right tackle.
If Matthews is too much of a reach as a top-15 pick, another great option here would be Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.
Some believe Barkevious Mingo will be a top-5 draft pick, but he is really a much better fit to convert to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, as he lacks the size and strength to be a three-down defensive lineman in a 4-3. For the Colts. However, he would make a lot of sense as a hybrid pass-rusher.
The Colts are likely to let Dwight Freeney walk as an unrestricted free agent in 2013, and Mingo would be a perfect replacement. He is a fantastic athlete who is also good at dropping into coverage and making run plays in space, and he would add a much-needed playmaker to their defensive front seven.
Another great potential pick for the Colts would be Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who could be the cog the Colts need at nose tackle.
After a lengthy contract dispute that ended with Cliff Avril signing to a franchise tag this season, it is highly likely that the Detroit Lions will lose their best pass-rusher in 2013 and need to replace him. With many pass-rushers already off the board, it makes sense for the Lions to jump in during Round 1 and take one of the best players available in Michigan State’s William Gholston.
Gholston is a massive defensive end who is also a terrific athlete and pass-rusher, and he would be a very good fit to replace Avril.
With soon-to-be 34-year-old Kyle Vanden Bosch not getting better with age, it is important the Lions replace Avril if they lose him, making it their best choice to draft Gholston here. Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks would also make sense.
The St. Louis Rams desperately need to improve at safety, and with their second first-round pick in 2013, they could have a chance to draft the class’ best safety and a real impact defensive back in LSU’s Eric Reid. If they have that chance, they should not pass it up.
Reid is a complete free safety who is very athletic and great in pass coverage, but he is also a sound tackler. He can give the Rams a much-needed leader and playmaker in the middle of the secondary and form what could be a formidable secondary for years to come along with cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins.
If the Dallas Cowboys have a chance at either of the top two interior offensive linemen in this draft class, those being Alabama’s Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones, they should not pass it up. In this scenario, they have a choice between both, but with a real need for a powerful, mauling guard, I think they would lean toward the bigger player with higher upside in Warmack.
Warmack can be an immediate upgrade at either guard spot and improve the Cowboys’ biggest weakness. He has the potential to be the next Larry Allen for the Cowboys, and that is a chance they cannot afford to pass up.
The Cincinnati Bengals desperately need to add another safety who can start next to Reggie Nelson in their secondary, a unit that has been part of the team’s struggles this season.
Alabama’s Robert Lester is a well-rounded safety who can help the team both with adept coverage ability and strong run-support tackling, something the team has not gotten from Nate Clements or Taylor Mays at that position.
Lester is not an elite prospect, but he should be a solid starter at either safety position in the league, which is what the Bengals need most. Two other Alabama prospects could also be potential Bengals picks here: interior lineman Barrett Jones would be a much-needed upgrade at center, while linebacker C.J. Mosley would be an upgrade over struggling middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.
The New York Jets have a 3-4 defense conducive to edge-rushing outside linebackers, but they do not have any premier pass-rusher currently on their roster. They should be looking for one in the 2013 NFL draft, and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore would be a great choice.
After emerging as a sophomore, Moore has been a breakout superstar as a junior, leading all of college football with 18 tackles for loss through eight games. Moore has a true affinity for getting into the backfield and making plays, which is exactly what the Jets need to add to their defense.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line has struggled this season, with star left tackle Jason Peters out for the season and second-year right guard Danny Watkins failing to play up to expectations. With Peters’ future being questionable coming off of an Achilles injury, and the team still waiting on Watkins to develop, it is not clear exactly where the Eagles most need offensive line help, but the unit needs to get better.
That would make Alabama’s Barrett Jones a perfect choice. Jones has played all five offensive line positions at Alabama, giving him incredible versatility, but he could be an immediate upgrade as a starting guard while also being able to play offensive tackle if needed.
Another possibility could be Jones’ teammate C.J. Mosley, who could complete an overhaul, along with this past offseason’s addition of DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks, of the linebacker corps on the strong side.
If this situation were to play out, it would be hard for the Minnesota Vikings to go wrong. They really need a No. 2 wide receiver to line up across from Percy Harvin, and all of the top wideouts would still be available. But if Utah’s Star Lotulelei were to somehow fall this far, the Vikings could not pass him up.
For years, the Vikings were known for the “Williams Wall” on the interior defensive line, but since losing Pat Williams in 2011, they have not had the same presence. They have a chance to restore that presence with a massive, powerful, athletic and potentially dominant nose tackle in Lotulelei to line up alongside Kevin Williams.
If the Vikings were to go with a wideout, USC’s Robert Woods or California’s Keenan Allen would both make a great choice.
The Miami Dolphins’ biggest need may be for a cornerback to start across from Sean Smith, so Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks would be tough to pass up here. However, having drafted their franchise quarterback last year in Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins need to add a go-to receiver for their quarterback, and with the top receivers still on the board, it makes sense for them to invest their first-round pick in that direction.
Brian Hartline has had a surprising breakout season for the Dolphins this season, but he is still not a real No. 1 wideout. USC’s Robert Woods is the best all-around wideout in the draft class, with his combination of athleticism, great hands, route-running skills and quickness, and he could be a very reliable option for Tannehill.
California’s Keenan Allen and Tennessee’s Justin Hunter are also options for a go-to wideout in the latter half of Round 1, with the Dolphins now making a run at the AFC’s sixth playoff spot.
Cornerback is currently the weakest position on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, and the chance to draft a potential No. 1 cornerback in Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks would be a great choice late in the first round.
Banks is great value outside of the top 20 selections, and is as steady as any cornerback in this draft class. He has great size and athletic ability, has consistently shut down top competition in SEC wide receivers and is a sound tackler.
Banks’ stock is rising as he continues to impress as a senior, and he could be a much-needed improvement to the Steelers’ secondary.
Russell Wilson may be the future of the Seattle Seahawks at the quarterback position, but the Seahawks need to add better receivers for him to throw to.
California’s Keenan Allen is a big, athletic, sure-handed wideout with great route-running ability, which is exactly what the Seahawks need.
Allen is not a major big-play threat, which Tennessee’s Justin Hunter is, but what the Seahawks really need is a reliable, go-to wideout who can make plays as an intermediate receiver. Hunter has more upside, but drops can also be an issue for him, and the last thing the Seahawks need is another drop-prone wideout.
The Chicago Bears are another team that really needs to revamp their offensive line, and drafting the best offensive lineman available would make a lot of sense for them. In this scenario, that player would be USC’s Khaled Holmes, who would be a much-needed upgrade at center.
Holmes is the best center in the draft class by a large margin and could improve one of the league’s weakest interior offensive lines.
Another possibility here is Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who is the draft’s quickest riser among offensive tackles and has the potential to play left tackle, where the Bears really need to upgrade. Holmes, however, is the better value, and he also helps the Bears at a position of need.
The Baltimore Ravens have long been known for their great defenses, but age and injuries have started to bring that defense down this year. The Ravens could go in a number of direction to improve that defense in the 2013 NFL draft, but what they really need is to add to their secondary.
Aside from Lardarius Webb, who is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, the Ravens are weak at cornerback, while injuries are taking their toll on safety Ed Reed, who is still a great player but will likely flirt with retirement again at the end of this season.
It makes sense for the Ravens to draft the best-available defensive back in April, and in this scenario, that player is North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson.
Amerson’s stock has slipped in his senior season due to inconsistent play, but he is an aggressive playmaker with tremendous ball skills. In an aggressive defense like the Ravens', where he would have opportunities to make plays across from Webb, he could thrive.
The Denver Broncos need to improve at defensive tackle and find a disruptive interior lineman who can challenge opposing running backs and bring interior pressure. Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is an explosive defensive lineman who can help the Broncos in both of those capacities.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe could move back inside eventually, but the Broncos still need a stronger, more powerful presence next to him or whoever else is at defensive tackle in the middle. Floyd has the potential to be the difference-maker they lack at the position.
The Broncos could also look for a pass-rusher to line up with Elvis Dumervil, to move Wolfe inside, such as Oregon’s Dion Jordan or SMU’s Margus Hunt.
The New York Giants need to upgrade across their linebacking corps, so it would be a very smart choice to draft a player at that position in the first round.
Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is a rising star who has really stepped up his play following the departures of Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw from the Crimson Tide last season, and he could very well end up as a late first-round pick.
Mosley is on the small side, but he is an athletic linebacker who can do a wide variety of things on the field. He is an aggressive playmaker and sound tackler but is also very effective in coverage. He could play any linebacker position in a 4-3 scheme and could really be an upgrade on a weak unit.
The Atlanta Falcons have one of the greatest tight ends of all-time on their roster in Tony Gonzalez, but Gonzalez is expected to retire following the 2012 season. With no heir apparent on the Falcons’ roster, drafting the 2013 draft class’ top tight end in Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert would make perfect sense.
As a tremendous receiver with great size, but also being a very adequate blocker, Gonzalez became a legend. Eifert has all of those traits, and while he may not be quite the natural receiving threat nor quite the athlete that Gonzalez is, he has the skill set to be a great all-around tight end and another valuable weapon for Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense.
The Green Bay Packers have allowed 28 sacks through eight games this season, which is more than any team other than the Arizona Cardinals. The Packers need to get better on their offensive line and could take chance on Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher in this scenario.
Fisher is a rising prospect on the offensive line, and with all of the top offensive linemen off the board, he becomes a potential late first-round choice. Fisher has the potential to play left tackle in the NFL, and could end up being an upgrade over Marshall Newhouse at that position for the Packers.
Tennessee offensive lineman Dallas Thomas, who would likely play guard for the Packers, is another possible choice, or they could look to the defensive side of the ball with Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro.
The New England Patriots have one promising rookie safety in Tavon Wilson, but the Patriots need to continue to address the secondary early in the 2013 NFL draft. Starting safety Patrick Chung, who has struggled with both pass coverage and staying healthy, will likely be let go as an unrestricted free agent, so drafting another safety to replace him makes sense.
Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro is an athletic, instinctive safety who is known as a hard-hitting tackler, but he is also quite adept in coverage. Teaming up with Wilson, the Patriots could end up having their best duo of safeties in many years as the two develop.
The Patriots may also be looking to shift cornerback Devin McCourty to safety for the long term, and if they do that, cornerback could be the focus of their first-round pick. That could make Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes or USC’s Nickell Robey options at cornerback.
The Houston Texans can afford to take a chance with their first-round draft pick, while they also need a fast, dynamic wide receiver who can stretch the field and draw double-teams away from star wideout Andre Johnson. With both of those things considered, the Texans would be hard-pressed to pass upon Tennessee’s Justin Hunter if they have the chance to draft him.
Hunter is the most gifted of any wideout in the draft class, with a tremendous combination of size, speed and vertical ability. Hunter can make spectacular catches, but he is very raw as a route-runner and has some issues with drops.
Hunter is the big-play threat the Texans need to complete their set of offensive weapons, however, and would be a tremendous pick late in the first round. The Texans could also opt for an upgrade at nose tackle in Georgia’s John Jenkins.
The San Francisco 49ers have an elite defense, but surprisingly, one of their weakest positions is also one of the most important in the 3-4 scheme: nose tackle. The 49ers have a great defensive front seven, but they need a player who can truly fill the gap and be a powerful force in the middle of the front line.
Georgia’s John Jenkins would be a perfect fit. Jenkins is a massive 358-pound lineman with great power and strength, but also has surprising quickness and athleticism for his size. That makes him a very explosive presence in the middle of a defensive line and a perfect fit to play nose tackle in a three-man front at the next level.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots gameday correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.