In the NFL, there are practice-squad players, backups, mediocre starters, average starters, very good starters, playmakers and future Hall of Famers. You can pretty much break down every roster into those categories.
Trying to predict which players might one day become Hall of Famers is a futile exercise. Most years, it's impossible to tell. But looking for playmakers, those athletes that impact the game in a unique way and become the focus of opposing game plans, well, that we can take a stab at.
This year's draft is all about defensive depth, so not surprisingly, my three biggest playmakers in this year's draft come from that side of the ball. Let's introduce those players alongside a full, first-round mock draft.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
I'm standing by this pick. For now. I've been saying all along that I believe by the time April rolls around, Geno Smith will grade out higher and Andy Reid won't pass on the chance to select him. I might be proven wrong, but for now I'm sticking with this pick.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
It's pretty much impossible for Jacksonville to screw this pick up since they need help in so many areas, but I'd expect new coach Gus Bradley to put an emphasis on rebuilding the defense. What better way to start than at defensive tackle? The Jags will be much better against the run if they make this pick.
3. Oakland Raiders: Bjoern Werner, Florida State, DE
The Raiders are another team that needs plenty of help and should find it at No. 3. But with a major need to upgrade the pass rush—and a lot of very talented edge rushers available—Oakland should focus on that area in the first round.
Bjoern Werner was the picture of consistency at Florida State, a trait often lacking for this current iteration of the Raiders. As a true freshman, he played in every game and finished with 3.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. As a sophomore, he improved those numbers to seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Last season he became a force, winning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors after finishing with 13 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and eight passes defended. He's a solid pass rusher, is stout against the run and has mountains of potential. This would be a very smart pick for Oakland.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Even if a guy like Geno Smith were to fall to Philly, I think the team is likely to go into the season with Mike Vick and Nick Foles as the top options and possibly draft a quarterback later in the draft. But no matter who is still on the board, if Joeckel is available, the Eagles will snatch him up immediately.
5. Detroit Lions: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
When need meets value, it's a beautiful thing. If the Lions passed on Milliner here, the consensus top corner on the board, I'd be shocked.
6. Cleveland Browns: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
There might not be a more explosive talent in this draft than Jarvis Jones. There also might not be a bigger risk for a player with a top-10 grade.
If you have any questions about Jones' potential, consider the following from his draft profile at NFL.com:
Jones stayed productive in 2012 as a redshirt junior, leading the nation in three categories: sacks (14.5, school record), tackles for loss (24.5, school record) and forced fumbles (7). Add 85 tackles, 4 passes defended and an interception and Jones was one of the top defenders in the country and was a finalist for the Bednarik, Lombardi, Nagurski, Butkus and Lott awards.
But Jones also has spinal stenosis and you can bet a lot of teams will be concerned. That could drop him far lower than this, but for now I'm grading him on talent. I'm no doctor, after all. With the Browns shifting to a 3-4 defense, Jones is the type of player that could have a Von Miller impact immediately.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
You have to wonder if Wilson would be the top quarterback off the board were it not for the utter disarray he had to play through at Arkansas this season. Remember, he was first-team All-SEC and one of the top quarterbacks in the nation in 2011. The Cardinals desperately need to upgrade the QB position, and Wilson is the top guy left on the board.
8. Buffalo Bills: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
No, he doesn't have the ideal size or arm strength NFL scouts look for, and he regressed in 2012. Yes, the Bills really need to upgrade at the quarterback position and there is always one team at every draft that really reaches to select a quarterback. This year, I think that team will be Buffalo.
9. New York Jets: Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB LSU
Mingo has crazy potential and athleticism. But he's been a bit inconsistent in the past and wasn't really used in a manner befitting his skill set at LSU, so it's hard to get a read on how effective he'll be at the next level. Still, as a 3-4 outside linebacker allowed to pin his ears back and attack, he could be dominant. He's the perfect fit for Rex Ryan's defense.
10. Tennessee Titans: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
The Titans could go a lot of different directions with this pick. They could select Chance Warmack, the best guard to hit the draft in some time (and arguably the best player in this draft, period). They could look to upgrade in the secondary, though any pick at No. 10 seems like a reach in that regard.
I think they'll look to upgrade the pass rush instead. Moore finished 2012 with 85 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. The man is a game-changer on the edge. Plus, he's versatile to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 should the Titans ever tweak their scheme.
He'll seriously upgrade this team's pass rush, a major need in Tennessee.
11. San Diego Chargers: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
He's Philip Rivers, and he approves this draft pick.
12. Miami Dolphins: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
Some folks might like to see the Dolphins go after Cordarrelle Patterson here, but I think Joe Philbin's Green Bay connection could bring Greg Jennings to Miami. And a good thing, too—Warmack is arguably the draft's best player, a steal at No. 12 and a major upgrade at a position of weakness for the Dolphins.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
This might be considered a reach, and the Bucs might be able to trade down and land him anyway. But the team really needs to upgrade at corner, and Banks is the second guy on my board at the position.
14. Carolina Panthers: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State, DT
There is a ton of depth at defensive tackle this season, so the Panthers could go in a lot of different directions here. But trust me, they'll look to bolster the core of the defense at No. 14.
15. New Orleans Saints: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
I love this pick and fit for the Saints defense. Jordan is unbelievably athletic and might have been a top-10 pick were it not for a torn labrum sustained in 2012. He'll give the Saints a major upgrade as a pass-rushing specialist.
16. St. Louis Rams: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
With two picks in the first round, the Rams have a lot of options. Tackle is a need but would be a reach here. Wide receiver is another major need, but I think the Rams can wait until No. 22 to fill that need. But Kenny Vaccaro would not be on the board then, so the Rams would be wise to upgrade that position with the top option on the board.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Matt Elam, S, Florida
Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can't play forever. I think Vaccaro would have been the Steelers' top option at this pick, but with him gone, Pittsburgh will gladly snatch up Elam.
18. Dallas Cowboys: Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
The Cowboys have no shortage of high-profile skill players. But it's time they improved in the trenches, and adding Cooper, the top offensive lineman left on the board, is a solid start.
19. New York Giants: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
Hey, remember when the Giants beat teams by generating major pressure with only four or five rushers? That wasn't the case in 2012, and not surprisingly, the Giants missed the playoffs. With Osi Umenyiora as good as gone, look for the Giants to add a defensive end at this slot. Ansah is a great value pick here.
20. Chicago Bears: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, LB
We all know Te'o's stock has taken a major tumble since the BCS National Championship, but he's still a first-round linebacker. With Brian Urlacher's career winding down, Te'o makes a lot of sense for the Bears.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
For as solid as the Bengals defense was over the second half of the season, the team's linebacking corps needs improvement. Alec Ogletree is an excellent athlete and will instantly make an impact for Cincy.
22. St. Louis Rams (via Redskins): Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
See, I told you they could wait to select a wide receiver. Sam Bradford will finally get his game-changer in the passing attack.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Johnathan Jenkins, DT, Georgia
The Vikings dominated the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the ball, though that Adrian Peterson guy helped. Now, the team will look to do the same on the other side of the ball, drafting Jenkins to anchor the defensive tackle position.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
The Colts need a nose tackle to control the interior of the line. Williams is just the guy for the job.
25. Seattle Seahawks: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Needing an upgrade at tackle, the Seahawks will be thrilled to find Fluker drop into their laps.
26. Green Bay Packers: Barrett Jones, OG, Alabama
Needing an upgrade at more than one position on the offensive line, the Packers will be thrilled to see Jones fall into their laps, a player who literally played everywhere on the offensive line for Alabama in his career.
27. Houston Texans: Keenan Allen, WR, California
Finally, Andre Johnson gets a legitimate running mate. Finally, Matt Schaub gets another playmaker in the passing game.
28. Denver Broncos: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
Richardson is a great athlete and might shoot up the boards after he performs at the combine. Still, I think he's best suited in a 3-4 defense as an end, and he could ultimately become a Justin Smith-like presence for the Broncos.
29. New England Patriots: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Without question, the Patriots need to improve at cornerback. When Aqib Talib went down to injury in the AFC Championship game, it looked like Joe Flacco was playing sandlot football against the cast of The Sandlot. Rhodes is a nice value here and won't get past New England.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Tony Gonzalez is going to retire, or at least it'd be very surprising if he returned for another season. The Falcons must replace his impact in the passing game, and while Eifert can't possibly do that, he's the team's best option at the draft and a very nice player.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Eric Reid, S, LSU
The 49ers have one major weakness, and it's at safety. The Niners were vulnerable against vertical passing attacks in the playoffs and desperately need to remedy that to make another Super Bowl run in 2013. Reid is a nice value here and will instantly step in and improve the Niners' secondary.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Kevin Minter, MLB, LSU
Ray Lewis is gone and the Ravens need to replace him. Minter plays like a missile and could end up being one of the steals of the draft this year. The rich get richer.
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