There comes a time in every mock drafter's life where he has to turn in his final term paper and hope for the best. For ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., that final iteration of his first-round selections came just hours before Thursday night's festivities at Radio City Music Hall.
The O.G. of NFL mock drafts and punditry, Kiper continues to be the most talked-about name in the field. Kiper, full of strong opinions and copious amounts of hair gel, is synonymous with multiple generations of NFL draft viewers.
WIth each of his breakdowns—whether they be of the first round only or multi-round looks—comes a multitude of discussion, both negative and positive. And that will undoubtedly be the case with his final mock draft, which fans will view as the most accurate pre-draft representation they will get before Roger Goodell steps to the podium.
And based on his latest release, there will definitely be some folks shocked at the direction their team is leaning. No mock draft is ever 100 percent accurate—especially not in an unpredictable year like this one—but for prosperity's sake, lets say Kiper gets it all right.
Under that assumption, here is a breakdown of a few big surprises you can expect on Thursday if Kiper bats 1.000.
(You can take a look at Mel Kiper Jr.'s entire first round mock draft at ESPN.com.)
Where Are the Quarterbacks?
So much for the nuclear arms race among teams trying to decide which top quarterback they'll want on Thursday. Despite all the incessant talk about Matt Barkley or Ryan Nassib heading to Buffalo and Geno Smith's presence still lingering, it seems Kiper isn't buying into any of the hype.
In his final mock before Thursday night's festivities, Kiper has zero quarterbacks taken in the first 32 picks. If that stance seems unprecedented, that's because it nearly is. The last time a quarterback wasn't taken during the first round was 1996, where the St. Louis Rams made the immortal Tony Banks the first signal-caller drafted at pick No. 42.
Even more startling: a quarterback has been taken within the first three picks of every draft since 2000. Ten of those 12 years have seen a signal-caller selected with the top overall pick, including each of the past four drafts. And only the last two of those quarterbacks have been taken under the NFL's new slotting system, which limits the exorbitant salaries formerly spent on top overall picks.
That should tell you all you need to know about this crop of quarterbacks. The risk has never been lower for taking a quarterback inside the first five picks, and yet scouts, coaches, and general managers for QB-needy teams have little interest with their first pick.
Now, will the entire first round go without a quarterback being selected? Of course not. Even if Thursday night's festivities go the way Kiper planned—which they never do for any expert, no matter how in-the-know—a team will surely trade up into the back half of Round 1 to land their guy.
Kiper's mock doesn't predict trades, and the way he lays out the first 32 picks makes sense. But to go on record as saying no quarterbacks will be taken on Thursday night if bold to say the least.
Two Offensive Guards in the Top 12?
Speaking of anomalies, it's looking more likely than ever we're about to see one at the offensive guard position. Though there are arguments about whether Alabama's Chance Warmack or North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper is the better prospect—Kiper has Cooper slightly ahead of Warmack, but that differs depending on the scout—at least one of the two will make history on Thursday.
In his mock draft, Kiper has Cooper heading to the Buffalo Bills at No. 8. Having lost Andy Levitre in the offseason to Tennessee, offensive guard went from a strength to a deficiency already this offseason. Cooper, an absolute stud in the middle who can do just about everything at a high level, would plug that gap instantly.
The Bills drafting Cooper wouldn't be notable for them filling a need. It would just represent the first time a guard has been drafted inside the first 10 picks since the New Orleans Saints took Colorado product Chris Naeole in 1997. It didn't exactly work out for the Saints, as Naeole left a mere half-decade into his career for Jacksonville.
Chris Naeole's career trajectory aside, the offensive guard spot has never been a premium draft position. There have been countless instances of players with third-round grades or converted tackles who have had success at guard for teams to see it as a risk worth taking. And even the prospects too great to pass on aren't taken in the first half of Round 1. Mike Iupati, who is arguably the best guard in the NFL at age 25, was only drafted at No. 17 by the 49ers.
Cooper being taken at No. 8 would be history that the NFL may not see for another decade-plus. But as we mentioned, Cooper is not alone among high-rated guards this year. Warmack is also seen as a potential top 10 pick, landing with the Miami Dolphins at No. 12 in Kiper's last look at the first round.
Two guards in the first 12 picks, possibly the first 10 if the board falls advantageously. If that happens, we're looking at something that may never happen again—especially if Warmack or Cooper wind up pulling a Chris Naeole.
Manti Te'o to Replace Brian Urlacher and Selected Over Alec Ogletree?
Arguably the most sought-after interview in NFL combine history, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o has gotten something unfamiliar over the past month or so: peace and quiet. With his off-the-field fiasco, poor 40-yard dash time and lackluster BCS National Championship Game performance all looking like ancient history, the focus has shifted to Te'o's four-year exploits on the field.
For some teams, that's caused Te'o to fly off their draft board. A scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that teammates felt Te'o was a "phony," which is one of a various set of opinions you'll find around the league about the Heisman runner-up.
That being said, it doesn't look like the Chicago Bears are the uncertain team. Kiper has them taking Te'o at No. 20, which would ostensibly make him Brian Urlacher's replacement. Urlacher is currently a free agent and is not expected to return in 2013, with both sides announcing they were parting ways earlier this offseason.
Though Urlacher is gone, middle linebacker isn't a massive need in the short term for Chicago. D.J. Williams signed in the offseason and Lance Briggs is still around, giving the Bears a solid enough core if they wanted to ride 2013 out. And, hey, I even know where they could find a future Hall of Famer with plenty of experience playing in Chicago on the open market.
In Te'o, though, the Bears could find a long-term solution. There are questions about his speed and ability to handle NFL-level competition, but he's an incredibly smart linebacker with strong leadership skills.
Those questions about Te'o do make it interesting that Kiper has him over Georgia's Alec Ogletree. Concerns about Ogletree are plentiful, but few of them are based on his on-field ability. Though paired with the more highly touted Jarvis Jones, Ogletree was the most consistent force in the Bulldogs' linebacking corps. He averaged over 11 tackles per game last season, showing an innate ability to read blocking schemes and a length-of-the-field quickness on running plays to the outside.
There was a time when it seemed like a no-brainer that Te'o would be the top middle linebacker taken in April. That time has come and passed, and now it's a bit of a shock to see him ahead of Ogletree on anyone's board—especially this late in the process.