NFL draft prognostication is an inexact science—even for the men who do the drafting. Still, there are some players with undeniable talent who will have a major impact on Sundays.
Every player has a chance to do big things in the NFL, but we’re starting to get a better idea of which ones are most likely to steal the show in the NFL.
Of course, finding the right fit is also a major factor in maximizing a player’s potential. A defensive tackle best suited for a one-gap defense may not thrive in the NFL as a two-gap space-eater. An elite slot receiver may struggle if he’s asked to line up as an X-receiver running a lot of vertical routes.
At this point in the pre-draft process, chatter about Team X’s interest in Player Y means very little. All we can do is match up the right player with the perfect fit.
Let’s take a look at an updated projection for the first round, highlighting the players who have a chance to shine very early in their careers. A few of them have a chance to warrant Rookie of the Year consideration in 2013.
*Stars, studs and potential Rookie of the Year candidates are presented in italics.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Geno Smith isn't much of a choice at this point. With Alex Smith headed to Kansas City, Luke Joeckel is the obvious choice.
Joeckel is the best player in this draft class. Regardless of positional needs, it would be foolish for Andy Reid to look elsewhere at the top of the first round.
Joeckel has the size, strength, athleticism and sound footwork to be an elite left tackle at the NFL level, and it won’t take him very long to earn that distinction.
Branden Albert may or may not leave in free agency, but that shouldn’t be a factor in Kansas City’s decision. Joeckel is the best player available, and he’s the smart choice with the first pick.
Offensive linemen are typically overlooked for Rookie of the Year honors, but Joeckel has the talent to potentially earn that honor in 2013.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
New general manager David Caldwell is in a position to rebuild the Jaguars from the ground up. Jacksonville has a lot of holes to fill, making the “best player available” approach the obvious option.
The Jaguars need to bolster their pass rush this offseason after a 2012 campaign that saw them notch just 20 sacks. Need and value meet here, and Werner is the best option with the second pick.
3. Oakland Raiders: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
There has been a lot of talk this offseason of the Raiders’ interest in Smith. As Miller and Bleacher Report Senior Producer Aaron Nagler point out, that’s a very real possibility with the No. 3 selection:
As I reported from Senior Bowl...RT @aaron_nagler: I'll bet if KC or JAX don't take Geno Smith, Reggie McKenzie will.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 18, 2013
Carson Palmer is nearing the end of his career, and Terrelle Pryor didn’t exactly get much of a chance last season to prove what he can do. If Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie doesn’t trade out of this pick, Smith looks to be the most logical option.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Dion Jordan, OLB, Oregon
Jordan was a big-time performer at the combine on Monday, proving he has the athletic ability to be a special player in the NFL.
Jordan is still a bit raw, but he’s one of the most athletic pass-rushers in this year’s class. At 6’6” and 248 pounds, he is an ideal fit at outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and that’s exactly where the Eagles should use him.
At Oregon, Jordan had experience lining up all over the defensive front. He is an able pass-defender with excellent pass-rushing skills, making him a great fit at the weak-side linebacker position—a position Philadelphia will likely look to address this offseason.
Jordan will have surgery to repair a torn labrum following the combine, but he should be healthy in time for the NFL season. With his size, speed and athleticism, he has the potential to do very big things in 2013.
5. Detroit Lions: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Milliner’s stock has been all over the place this offseason. Few doubt his status as the best cornerback in the draft, but he hasn’t shown the elite edge that will make him a top-tier pass-defender in the NFL.
The Alabama cornerback quelled some of those concerns at the combine, though, as pointed out by NFL.com’s Gil Brandt:
Dee Milliner shows why he's considered a top-10 pick with that unofficial 4.31 in 40 at #NFLCombine. Really, really helped himself.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) February 26, 2013
Milliner ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash on Tuesday, and any anxieties about his straight-line speed are now a thing of the past. He proved at the combine he has the recovery speed to keep up with any receiver he may face on Sundays.
The Lions are in desperate need of a shutdown corner. Their pass defense has been atrocious in recent years, and finding a true No. 1 corner should be at the top of their priority list.
Detroit also needs to address concerns at the defensive end and linebacker positions, but general manager Martin Mayhew won’t find a cornerback with Milliner’s talent beyond the first round. Other needs can be addressed later in the draft.
6. Cleveland Browns: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
Ezekiel Ansah is probably the more popular pick here, but he isn't the better fit.
The Browns are transitioning to a 3-4 this year, meaning Jabaal Sheard will likely be moving to the strong-side linebacker position. If Ansah is to get a lot of consistent reps in a 3-4 front, it will probably be as a weak-side linebacker and situational pass-rusher.
The Browns need players who can start immediately, and while both Mingo and Ansah are very raw, Mingo is the more pro-ready linebacker. He fills a big need and has one of the highest ceilings of any pass-rusher in this draft class.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
Fisher was already considered one of the better offensive tackles in this year’s draft class, but a strong Senior Bowl showing and an excellent combine has propelled him into the discussion as this year’s No. 1 offensive tackle, as Bleacher Report’s Dan Hope points out with this tweet:
A legitimate case can certainly be made for Eric Fisher as the top offensive tackle in the class, but not on basis of better Combine results— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) February 24, 2013
For the record, I still think Joeckel is the best player in this draft, but Fisher isn’t too far behind. He has room to grow, but he has the potential to be an exceptional blindside defender in the near future.
Arizona’s offensive line was one of the worst in the league in 2012. The Cardinals need to shore up their pass-protection unit in a big way, and Fisher will go a long way toward doing so.
8. Buffalo Bills: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Doug Marrone took over the Bills’ head coaching job this offseason, and he’ll be looking for a new quarterback going forward. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the answer.
Barkley hasn’t received the medical clearance to throw yet after suffering a separated shoulder in November. If he is healthy enough to throw at his pro day on March 27 (and perform up to expectations), he had a legitimate chance to be a top-10 pick in April.
9. New York Jets: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
As expected, Ansah wowed a lot of people at the combine, including Gil Brandt:
Ziggy Ansah cemented place as high first-round pick by showing versatility in alternate LB drills. Smooth player. on.nfl.com/X6qWhp— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) February 25, 2013
Ansah ran a 4.63 40-yard dash, displaying the athleticism and speed that already garnered a lot of first-round attention this offseason.
A former runner with BYU’s track team, Ansah doesn’t have a lot of football experience. He only played three years of football, making him one of the more raw prospects garnering first-round consideration.
With size, speed and versatility, Ansah will find a home in the first round, and he has the potential to be a premier pass-rusher in the NFL with a little polish. The Jets need to shore up their pass rush, and he would be a good fit with the No. 9 selection.
10. Tennessee Titans: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
As ESPN previously reported, Lotulelei was diagnosed with a heart condition and did not participate at the combine.
Bleacher Report injury expert Dave Siebert did an extensive breakdown on Lotulelei’s condition, and he had this to say about the uncertainty of his draft stock:
The threat posed by Lotulelei's slightly lower heart function remains to be seen, and details will keep surfacing in the coming weeks as medical evaluations continue. Scouts and fans alike are certainly crossing their fingers that this will resolve on its own, and Lotulelei's agent already confirmed the defensive standout's plans to participate in Utah's March 20 Pro Day.
It’s hard to project where the Utah prospect will land on draft day; the top 10 still seems like a likely scenario, but time will tell.
If Lotulelei’s condition proves to be a non-issue, Tennessee would be ecstatic to land such a dominant interior lineman. The Titans need to shore up their defensive line, and Lotulelei is one of the best in this draft class.
11. San Diego Chargers: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
Johnson is one of the most athletic offensive tackles in this class. A former quarterback, tight end and defensive end, he has the quick feet and athletic frame to be a quality left tackle in the NFL.
With an ultra-fast 40-yard dash time and an overall strong showing at the combine, Johnson has cemented himself as a top offensive tackle. San Diego certainly needs one.
The Chargers need to find a suitable replacement for Marcus McNeill, who retired in 2012 after six successful season with the team. Johnson could step in immediate and fill that role.
12. Miami Dolphins: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Patterson may come off the board well before the Dolphins pick in the first round. He is the most talented receiver in this draft class, and plenty of teams will consider selecting him in the first 11 picks.
The Dolphins will look to address the wide receiver position this offseason. Brian Hartline and Davone Bess had solid 2012 seasons, but neither is a true No. 1 option.
Patterson has the size, speed and pure physical ability to be an electric playmaker in the NFL. His route-running abilities are still unrefined, but he has the potential to be an elite player at the position.
With a little coaching, he’s primed to be a star.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
With Milliner already off the board, Rhodes becomes the next-best option for the Bucs at No. 13.
Rhodes ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Paired with a 40.5-inch vertical, he showed he has the physical tools to be an excellent NFL cornerback.
Tampa Bay finished dead last in pass defense a year ago. Shoring up its secondary should be priority No. 1 on draft day.
14. Carolina Panthers: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Some have added Floyd to the discussion for top-five candidacy, but I don’t think that will be the case in April.
Floyd isn’t an elite talent, but he’s one of the more disruptive interior linemen in this draft class. With good athleticism and a quick first step, he specializes in shooting gaps and disrupting the flow of plays in the backfield.
Carolina needs to address its interior line this offseason. The Panthers struggled to stop the run in 2012, and with few glaring needs to address in April, selecting the top defensive tackle on the board would be an excellent choice.
15. New Orleans Saints: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Moore didn't turn in a good workout at the combine, and his draft stock will take a hit as a result. If he can't step it up at his pro day, No. 15 may be too early to think about selecting him.
While Moore didn't put up good numbers in Indianapolis, it's also important to remember that he isn't an ultra-athletic players. He doesn't play well in space. He's a sound all-around player with an innate ability to get to opposing quarterbacks.
He'd be a better fit at defensive end in a 4-3, but the Saints can find a place for him in their 3-4 front. Pass-rusher is a major need, and Moore is still one of the best available.
16. St. Louis Rams: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
Offensive tackle may be a bigger need for the Rams, but Warmack is one of the best offensive linemen available this year.
Warmack is a road grader. At 6’3” and 320 pounds, he has the size and strength to be an absolute mauler in the NFL, and this is about as far as he’ll slide in the first round.
St. Louis has addressed the defensive side of the ball repeatedly in recent drafts, and this year should be more about offense. The value is too good to pass up.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
General manager Kevin Colbert promises changes this offseason, and an 8-8 record a year ago gives the Steelers plenty of reason to expect it.
James Harrison, Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu may all be nearing their end in Pittsburgh, and addressing some of those positions will undoubtedly be a focus for Colbert this offseason.
That said, the Steelers have always done a great job developing their young talent through lesser roles. Vaccaro may not have an opportunity for immediate playing time, but he’ll be a better player by being eased into an NFL career.
Vaccaro has the speed, ball skills and willingness to help in run support to be a terrific all-around defender. He also presents versatility in coverage schemes and should be able to contribute very early in his career.
18. Dallas Cowboys: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
The Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin to pilot their defense this season, and he’ll be bringing the Tampa 2 with him.
Dallas will be looking for pieces to make the transition a smooth one, with weak-side defensive end and linebacker being top priorities. Addressing those needs should be lower on the priority list than shoring up the offensive line.
The Cowboys have struggled to run the football in recent years, and constant A-gap pressure has been a major headache for Tony Romo. Adding a top-tier interior offensive lineman like Cooper would be a great way to address that issue.
Cooper needs to add some bulk, but he has the strength and solid footwork to play just about anywhere on the interior offensive line. If he falls to the Cowboys at No. 18, they’ll have a hard time passing on him.
19. New York Giants: Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
Justin Tuck has been largely ineffective recently, and Osi Umenyiora will likely depart in free agency. Adding another pass-rushing defensive end to play opposite Jason Pierre-Paul should be at the top of the Giants’ list.
New York loves to slide its pass-rushers inside in nickel packages and obvious passing situations. Okafor has experience playing interior defensive line positions in a similar role with Texas, and he’ll be a great fit for the Giants.
20. Chicago Bears: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Every offensive line position should be up for grabs entering the 2013 season. Chicago’s pass protection was terrible last year, and upgrading at some key positions should be one of the team’s goals going forward.
Fluker doesn’t have the frame or strong footwork to be a quality left tackle in the NFL. He is arguably the best run-blocking tackle in this year’s class, though, and he has enough physical ability to be a solid pass-blocker on the right side.
The Bears would love for Lane Johnson to be available here, but he’ll likely be off the board long before they pick in the first round. Fluker is the best available offensive lineman.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
Ogletree was recently arrested on DUI charges, and while he feels “really bad” about the incident, that won’t help his draft stock.
Ogletree entered college as a safety, later transitioning to the linebacker position. He has experience playing both inside and outside, and where he ends up in the NFL will largely depend on which team selects him in April.
With terrific athletic ability and good cover skills, Ogletree projects well as a 4-3 inside linebacker. Rey Maualuga’s future in Cincinnati is up in the air, meaning the door is wide open for Ogletree to be the choice at No. 21.
22. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
The Rams already addressed the offensive line, and now they turn to needs at the wide receiver position.
Danny Amendola is a terrific option in the passing game, but he isn’t the X-receiver Sam Bradford needs on the outside. Hopkins can be that receiver.
Hopkins had a very productive 2012 season at Clemson. He also has the size and speed to make a smooth transition to the NFL.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Keenan Allen, WR, California
Allen isn’t one of the faster receivers in this class, and his inability to run the 40-yard dash at the combine didn’t exactly help his draft stock.
When healthy, Allen has the potential to be a dominant pass-catching weapon. He’s one of the more polished receivers available this year, but proving he can stay healthy and play with enough speed to be a factor on Sundays will be a big concern.
Still, the Vikings desperately need another quality receiving option to line up across from Percy Harvin and improve a passing offense that finished the 2012 season No. 31 in the league.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Unfortunately for Jones, a spinal stenosis condition will likely facilitate a big slide down the draft boards in April. According to Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, sources at the combine suggest teams are already taking him off their draft boards after poor results in his medical testing:
Was told tonight that at least 10 teams have removed Jarvis Jones from their draft board due to spinal issue.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 24, 2013
Because of his condition, Jones was forced to transfer from USC to Georgia. He had an impressive career with the Bulldogs, but few teams are willing to invest heavily in a player who has a major medical condition.
If Jones does slide to the final third of the first round, expect at least one team to be willing to take a risk on him. The Colts may consider that option, given the lack of playmakers they have on the defensive side of the ball.
If Jones can stay healthy, he has the chance to be a premier player at the outside linebacker position. He needs to get better against the run, but his speed-rushing abilities are nearly elite. If he can play a full season in 2013, don’t count Jones out for Rookie of the Year honors.
25. Seattle Seahawks: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
With tremendous depth at the defensive tackle position, expect a couple top interior defensive linemen to fall down the first round in April. Richardson may be one of them.
Richardson is one of the more disruptive tackles in this draft class. His quick first step and explosiveness off the snap translated well to a one-gap 4-3 front.
Seattle doesn’t have a lot of holes to fill, and they can afford to make a luxury pick at No. 25.
26. Green Bay Packers: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
The Packers could go any number of ways with this pick. Safety, outside linebacker and offensive line are all possibilities, but tight end may be their best option.
Jermichael Finley never lived up to his potential in Green Bay, and with Greg Jennings potentially hitting the free-agent market this offseason, replacing that production should be a priority for the Packers.
Eifert transitioned from wide receiver to tight end at Notre Dame, and his pass-catching abilities haven’t gone unnoticed. He isn’t a sound run blocker at this point in his career, but he’ll have the opportunity to be a deadly pass-catching weapon in Aaron Rodgers’ offense.
27. Houston Texans: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Austin ran one of the fastest 40-yard dashes at the combine this year (4.34 seconds), but scouts already know what to expect from him. He’s absolutely electric with the ball in his hands, and he has the chance to put up massive numbers in his rookie campaign.
Finding the right fit will be crucial for the West Virginia speedster, though. He projects as a slot receiver in the NFL, and he’ll need to go to a team that can use his assets to its advantage.
Andre Johnson is at the back end of his career, but he still has some good seasons left with the Texans. He just needs some help.
With Austin in the slot and Johnson split out, Houston’s passing offense would take on a whole new look. Opponents can’t slant coverage in Johnson’s direction too often with an explosive playmaker like Austin on the field.
28. Denver Broncos: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
The Baltimore Ravens exploited Denver’s secondary in the playoffs. Champ Bailey showed his age in that game, and he gave the Broncos a reason to start looking for a replacement this offseason.
Trufant was impressive at the Senior Bowl, and he continued to improve his draft stock with an impressive performance at the combine on Tuesday.
His 4.38-second 40-yard dash was third at the position. The Washington cornerback also posted a 37.5” vertical and hammered out a respectable 16 reps on the bench press.
Trufant hasn’t garnered the same hype as Milliner or Rhodes, but he has the potential to be a shutdown corner in the NFL. With speed, length, athleticism and ball skills, don’t be surprised if he is in the defensive Rookie of the Year discussion at the end of the 2013 season.
29. New England Patriots: Matt Elam, S, Florida
Like Denver, Baltimore’s passing attack exploited big weaknesses in New England’s secondary. The Patriots need to get a lot better at defending the pass.
Aqib Talib will be a free agent, and even if he returns, the Patriots need to consider adding more pieces. Devin McCourty transitioned to safety in 2013, but adding a player like Elam would allow the Patriots to move him back to his more natural position.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Tank Carradine, DE, Florida State
Carradine was expected to be a first-round selection in this year’s draft, but a torn ACL in November derailed his path to the NFL.
Carradine is one of the most promising pass-rushers in this class, and if he can get healthy in time for the 2013 season, he could be a major impact player very early in his career.
At 6’4” and 276 pounds, Carradine has both the frame and athleticism to be a dominant 4-3 defensive end. The Falcons need to find one now that John Abraham has been cut, and he is the best available at No. 30.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
Hunt churned out a monster performance at the combine, solidifying what teams already know about him—he’s a freak athlete.
Hunt’s physical tools are enough to garner first-round consideration, but he’s still extremely raw. The bottom of the first round is probably the ceiling on his draft stock.
The 49ers may look to address their defensive backfield in the first round, but the top cornerbacks are already off the board. Adding depth at the defensive end position will also be a concern.
32. Baltimore Ravens: John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
If Jenkins, Johnathan Hankins, Kevin Minter, Arthur Brown and Manti Te’o are all still available at the end of the first round, Baltimore may need some extra time to turn in its pick.
In the end, Jenkins fills a big need for the Ravens. They need a dominant presence on the interior defensive line, and Jenkins has the potential to be that player.
At 6’3 and 358 pounds, he has the frame to hold up in a two-gap system. He commands a lot of double teams, freeing up linebacker to make big plays, and could go a long way in shoring up a run defense that was uncharacteristically porous up the middle in 2012.