The NFL draft has grown into a sporting spectacle, with fans gathering at Radio City Music hall every year to watch people have their names read aloud.
While casual fans may not understand why there is so much interest in an event with no ball or field, last season provides a perfect example of how much the draft matters.
The Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks all struggled in 2011, but drafted a quarterback in the subsequent offseason. All were playoff teams in 2012.
Here are my predictions for the first round, with the prospects you absolutely must know about in italics.
Note: Prospect Comparison Series videos courtesy of Bleacher Report's Matt Miller.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
The reason you need to know about Luke Joeckel is that he is likely to be the first overall pick in the draft. Kansas City solved its problem at quarterback by acquiring Alex Smith, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter notes it is clearing space for the Texas A&M product by attempting to trade Branden Albert.
Joeckel is a prototypical left tackle. He has the size, strength and quick feet to deal with the NFL’s best pass-rushers, and Smith would surely be pleased to have him protecting the blind side.
There were some concerns over his inability to wow scouts with his physical skills, but his game film is his greatest asset. His technique is as developed as any lineman in this draft, and he is still 6”6” and 306 pounds.
The Chiefs will not find a safer, smarter option than Joeckel at the top of the draft.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon
The Jaguars are in a bind because there are several players who are worth picking in this spot, but the team desperately needs a pass-rusher. Jordan’s speed and length make him the best player at his position in this class.
While Jacksonville may get better value from another player, its greatest need is clear. The team must draft a player who can get to the quarterback, and Jordan is certainly talented enough to do that regularly in the NFL.
3. Oakland Raiders: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
There was plenty of buzz surrounding the Raiders’ interest in West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in this draft, but the team appears to be addressing its need for a new quarterback through another route. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported that Oakland is nearing the final stages of making a trade for Seattle Seahawks backup QB Matt Flynn.
If the Raiders can close this deal, quarterback will no longer be the team’s primary concern, and it will be free to take the best player available. Floyd is a fantastic talent and an ideal fit for Oakland’s defensive scheme.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
The Eagles need to add players along their defensive line in order to facilitate the transition to their new 3-4 defense. This makes Lotulelei an ideal fit.
He has the perfect skill set to play defensive end in this scheme, and he has the strength and athleticism to be an every-down player at multiple positions along the defensive line.
5. Detroit Lions: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
After an active period in free agency, the Lions have been able to address some of their problems on defense, and tackle is now clearly the team’s greatest need.
If Fisher falls to them in this position, they will be thrilled. There is not much to separate Fisher from Joeckel, and both will likely be fantastic players.
6. Cleveland Browns: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
The Browns already have one of the best young cornerbacks in football in Joe Haden, and the team has a chance to lay the foundations for a dominant secondary with this pick.
Milliner has it all. He showed incredible speed at the combine to go with the fantastic technique that was apparent throughout his career at Alabama.
His cover skills are exceptional, and he is not afraid to step up and make tackles in run defense. There are few weaknesses in his skill set, and he is one of the most complete prospects in this draft.
He is the type of player who can contribute immediately, and if he falls to Cleveland, teams will have a difficult time throwing against the Browns in 2013.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Smith is one of the most interesting prospects in this draft because of his position. He is not as exciting of a prospect as Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, but he is the best quarterback in this draft class.
He is a mobile player with a cannon for an arm and he was remarkably productive at West Virginia. However, his accuracy has been inconsistent and he faces concerns about being able to take the punishment NFL quarterbacks have to deal with.
Smith has the talent to succeed on Sundays, but he is a far riskier prospect than some of the stars who have been taken early in previous drafts. However, teams picking before this who are uncertain about their options at quarterback may be willing to take a chance on him.
With no star signal-callers in this class, it will be fascinating to see which teams are willing to wait to draft a QB, and which ones will pull the trigger early.
8. Buffalo Bills: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
The Bills have one of the most explosive running backs in football in C.J. Spiller, and the team needs to ensure that its offensive line can open holes for him. With Andy Levitre gone, blocking is a concerning area.
But that will all be fixed if the team takes Warmack here. He is a complete prospect who can contribute a high level immediately upon arrival.
9. New York Jets: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
It has been a rough couple of seasons for the Jets. While most of the criticism has been directed toward the quarterbacks, the team’s main concern should be its defense, which has declined drastically since reaching consecutive AFC Championship games in 2009 and 2010.
This team has had success in the past with a mediocre offense, and it needs to rebuild its pass rush. Ansah is a remarkable athlete with a combination of speed, strength and athleticism that is unparalleled in this draft.
10. Tennessee Titans: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
Chris Johnson is the focal point of this team’s offense, and Tennessee needs to ensure that he has the necessary blocking to be productive.
The Titans already snagged Andy Levitre in free agency, and if they take Cooper with this pick, Johnson will have plenty of daylight to run toward in 2013.
11. San Diego Chargers: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
While the Chargers need a tackle, the team also has an opportunity to put the defense in position to be productive for many more years. Having two dynamic pass-rushers in a 3-4 system is a wonderful luxury.
San Diego took Melvin Ingram in the first round last year, and if it chooses to pair him with Jones, opposing quarterbacks will not know where to turn on passing downs. The Chargers will have one of the better pass rushes in the league if they go with Jones here.
12. Miami Dolphins: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
Johnson’s stock has soared due to his incredible athleticism, and the Dolphins would be thrilled to get him in this position.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
Trading down into a position where a cornerback would bring greater value will be an option for Tampa Bay here, but if Mingo is still on the board, the team will stay put. The Bucs lost Michael Bennett in free agency and now need a pass-rusher.
Raw talent always trumps lack of production in the draft, and Mingo’s physical skills are comparable if not equal to Dion Jordan’s. He is an explosive athlete who will fit perfectly into Tampa Bay’s defense.
14. Carolina Panthers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
The Panthers lacked adequate production from their defensive tackles this past season, and this is one of the deepest classes at this position in recent years. While Richardson may be the third-best player at his position, he is still an exciting talent.
He has the lower body strength to hold his ground in the trenches and stuff the run, but also possesses incredible quickness and can collapse the pocket. He would be an instant upgrade for Carolina’s front seven.
15. New Orleans Saints: Kenny Vaccaro, Safety, Texas
The Saints’ safety play was downright ugly last season, and if Rob Ryan plans on transitioning to his aggressive style of defense with the same personnel in the secondary, there is unlikely to be any improvement.
Vaccaro is a dynamic player who can make plays in coverage while also being a factor near the line of scrimmage. He would give Ryan options with his play-calling.
16. St. Louis Rams: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
The Rams will be delighted to have their choice of any wide receiver in the draft. The team needed a wideout before Danny Amendola left, and now that he is with the New England Patriots, the team desperately needs help in the passing game.
St. Louis has lacked a true No. 1 receiver since Sam Bradford arrived, and Patterson has the skill set to develop into a dominant player. He is an ideal fit for their offense.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The Steelers will look long and hard at the pass-rushers still available, but they will ultimately realize that there are no players at that position worth taking with this pick. Fortunately, there are plenty of options at their second-biggest need.
Austin is the most exciting player on the board here and he is an explosive playmaker. He will be an excellent addition after Mike Wallace moved on to Miami.
18. Dallas Cowboys: Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina
Whenever a team switches defensive schemes, its first-round pick should almost always be used on a defensive player. The Cowboys need to bolster their front seven now that they will be running Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2, and Williams would be an ideal addition.
He has the ability to shoot up the gap and create pressure up the middle, and this is exactly what Kiffin’s system needs.
19. New York Giants: Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia
The Giants' current options at middle linebacker are Mark Herzlich and Dan Connor. Conner was brought in as a free agent, but neither player was overly impressive last season.
New York would be wise to add an impact player at this position, and Ogletree’s athleticism allows him to be a playmaker.
20. Chicago Bears: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
The Bears recognized their glaring flaw and addressed the offensive line by bringing in Jermon Bushrod. But Chicago should know better than most teams that depth up front is crucial.
Fluker is not a star and likely will never be a left tackle in the NFL, but he is a gritty and smart blocker who would add depth and fight for a starting position with the Bears.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame
Te’o was more impressive at his pro day than he was at the combine, and his draft stock is finally starting to rise. There is no chance he will be a top 10 pick as he was once thought to be, but he will likely be a first-rounder.
The Bengals have a massive hole at inside linebacker, and even with the tumultuous pre-draft process Te’o has had, he is easily the best player at his position left at this point.
22. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins): Justin Pugh, G, Syracuse
St. Louis went with the sexy pick earlier in the first round, and now it is time for the team to address the positions that will battle in the trenches.
The Rams have plenty of talent along the defensive line, but could use more depth at guard. Pugh is a complete prospect with the ability to excel in both run-blocking and pass protections.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Keenan Allen, WR, Cal
The Vikings signed Greg Jennings, but the team has the opportunity to give Christian Ponder a solid receiving corps. With Allen and Jennings on the outside, and Kyle Rudolph at tight end, it will be difficult for teams to stack the box against Minnesota.
If Ponder cannot succeed with this group of talent to throw to, the Vikings should have doubts about the future at quarterback.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut
The Colts have filed several holes in free agency, but another cornerback would greatly benefit the secondary. Wreh-Wilson would be an ideal fit.
He is not a supremely gifted athlete, but he is physical and has fantastic ball skills. The Colts would get an instant upgrade if they draft him.
25. Minnesota Vikings (from Seattle Seahawks): Johnathan Jenkins, DT, Georgia
Minnesota has added the talent it needs at the skill position, and it must address holes on defense. Kevin Williams needs a physical force to free him up in pass-rushing situations.
Jenkins can certainly provide this, as he is one of the largest and most powerful players in this draft.
26. Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Despite the Packers' success in recent years, there are still holes on the roster. Running back is among the glaring ones, and Aaron Rodgers has had little or no help in the backfield for much of his time as a starter.
Lacy is the ideal back for the Green Bay offense. He can grind out positive yardage on first down and move the chains when needed.
27. Houston Texans: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
Hunter is a tall and strong receiver who can physically dominate smaller cornerbacks. This makes him a perfect fit across from Andre Johnson.
The Texans star receiver has never had a player with comparable athletic gifts opposite him, and while Hunter still has a long way to go, the talent is clearly there.
28. Denver Broncos: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
The Broncos did not expect to be looking for a defensive end in the draft, but Elvis Dumervil’s contract fiasco resulted with him leaving for the Baltimore Ravens. But this may be a blessing in disguise, as the team now has the chance to draft an exciting talent to play opposite Von Miller.
Hunt’s mind-boggling combination of size, strength and speed will make him hard to pass up, and if he is able to make his physical gifts count, the Broncos pass rush will be frightening.
29. New England Patriots: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Trufant is an instinctive player with plenty of talent, and he will grow and excel while playing for Bill Belichick.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Even after signing Osi Umenyiora, the Falcons still have work to do this offseason in order to shore up their pass rush.
Werner showed fantastic hustle throughout his college career, and although his lack of elite athleticism has hurt his draft stock, he presents great value with this pick.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
The 49ers need a safety after Dashon Goldson left, but the team can likely pick up a productive player later in the draft. Rhodes offers a better value than any safety at this position.
Chris Culliver did himself no favors on or off the field in his quest to remain with the 49ers, and Rhodes would be a quality replacement.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU
Baltimore brought in Michael Huff to address the secondary, and Minter would help fill out the linebacking corps. There will still be work to do after this pick, but this is a step in the right direction.
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