Alright, ladies and gentlemen, with the NFL Combine in the rear-view mirror and most of the impact free agents off the market, it's time to start looking at the upcoming NFL draft. The draft will be in primetime for the first time—really exciting for those of us who don't have class on Friday (fellow college students, high fives all around).
This is an exceptionally early mock draft, and it will inevitably change as we approach draft day due to the changing stocks of potential picks, free agent signings and trades. I plan on putting out three mock drafts, and perhaps a fourth on the eve of the draft. The last one may project draft-day trades, but the early versions will not—too many moving pieces to have any reliable ideas.
1. St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
Bradford is not the best player available—depending on who you ask, that's Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy or Eric Berry. I would take any of those players on my team, but let's be realistic: Are you going to pay No. 1-overall-pick money to a defensive tackle, or are you going to take the quarterback?
Remember that the typical problem faced by rookie QBs taken with the first pick (see: Stafford, Matthew) is a weak supporting cast. That's certainly true in St. Louis, but Steven Jackson is a fantastic running back and Jason Smith is a No. 2 overall selection at left tackle from a year ago. It makes financial sense for them to take the QB, who is somewhat protected by surrounding players. Also, remember that in this uncapped year, the Rams could cut Marc Bulger, who is due roughly $8 million, if they took a QB with the first pick.
Don't forget that Bradford himself is a pretty good player, and if he had come out last year, many suspect that he would have been taken AHEAD of Matthew Stafford. He's definitely worthy of a top-five selection in terms of his talent; the only real concern is his shoulder, which is admittedly a big one. However, taking a QB is always a gamble, and while I normally oppose taking the early QB, in this situation there are a couple of pieces already in place to support a rookie QB.
2. Detroit Lions: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska
The Lions can't go wrong with either Suh or McCoy at this pick, but my personal preference for Suh is based on the fact that he both elevated the play of his teammates around him and utterly dominated the Texas offensive line in the Big 12 championship game (4 sacks). He was so clearly the best player on the Nebraska roster that I'm just not sure how they'll replace him.
In addition, he's also a great fit to the Lions in terms of need. Jim Schwartz ran his best defenses in Tennessee with Albert Haynesworth manning the middle. The Lions have signed Kyle Vanden Bosch to be their new defensive end, and his production dropped this year without a Haynesworth-like force to command double teams on the interior.
Furthermore, the Lions had a woeful defensive line in the 2009 season, and veteran DT Corey Williams, acquired in a trade from the Browns, isn't the answer. Plug in Suh, and he'll start for 10 years.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma
The Bucs will be happy to see Bradford go at No. 1 because it means that if they stand pat, they can get one of the two elite DT prospects in the draft. Unlike the Lions, they likely do have a preference between the two players...in this mock, they land their guy. Tampa shifted from a conventional 4-3 defense back to a "Tampa 2" zone defense in midseason, and that seemed to cure a lot of the ills that had ailed the Bucs on defense—unsurprising, as CBs Ronde Barber and Aquib Talib play better in the Cover 2 zone than in man-to-man.
Like former Buc Warren Sapp, McCoy is a one-gap penetrator, which is the focal point of the Tampa 2 scheme up front. It should be impossible for the Bucs to pass on McCoy if he's here. They should be running to go turn in the card, and frankly, they should do the same even if they get Suh instead.
4. Washington Redskins: Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma State
One never quite knows what the Redskins will do; they did consider replacing Jason Campbell—twice—during last year's offseason. However, with Mike Shanahan at the controls in the nation's capital, it seems like a new era is beginning in Washington.
The Redskins released no fewer than 10 players, and were not major players for Julius Peppers or Karlos Dansby, which was unexpected given the team's history. It's impossible to be sure whether Dan Snyder will mess things up—again—for this proud franchise, but based on evidence surrounding Shanahan's arrival, the chances seem lower than in previous years.
The Redskins might think about taking Bradford if he's here, but even then it might be better to pass on him and grab the top franchise-caliber left tackle on the board in Russell Okung. He isn't the most polished prospect to come out of the draft, but he's a phenomenal talent with a big upside. I, personally, feel that Washington CAN win with Jason Campbell as their QB...assuming he stays upright, which has been a problem as the Redskins lack an offensive line, which was further weakened by the recent retirement of longtime starter Chris Samuels. To me, this pick is a no-brainer.
5. Kansas City Chiefs: Brian Bulaga, OT, Iowa
In my estimation, the Chiefs are the first real wildcard in the draft, coming in with the No. 5 pick. If you're going to pay somebody No. 5 overall kind of money, you better be sure that they can produce, and Brian Bulaga is a high-character guy, something GM Scott Pioli really looks for.
In addtion, Bulaga has a lot of polish—his upside might be a bit limited, but then again, that is said about every "polished" player coming out of college and I'm tired of hearing it. KC has a bunch of needs, but making a safe pick here is always a good idea.
6. Seattle Seahawks: Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech
This guy is a beast. Easily the best player on the Yellow Jackets' defense in the 2009 college football season, he also fills a need that the Seahawks have. I'm betting Pete Carroll, as a defensive coach, is looking to upgrade his awful pass rush with this pick. Plug him in and start him on Day One; it's a great pick that isn't even a reach here, in my estimation.
7. Cleveland Browns: Eric Berry, DB, Tennessee
Berry played safety at UT, but his skill set is so complete that many suspect he could play corner in a pinch. I know it's only a 40 time, but I think Joe Haden's surprisingly poor run at the NFL combine hurt his draft stock. With this pick, the Browns are still addressing their defensive backfield, and are making a safer pick, to boot. Of course, if Haden runs well at his UF pro day, all bets are off.
8. Oakland Raiders: Anthony Davis, OT, Rutgers
Well, well, well. It looks like I am projecting the smart pick for the Oakland Raiders here—as we draft junkies know all too well, that isn't always a great idea. In addition, the Raiders recently re-signed OT Khalif Barnes, so it's possible they'll pass on a tackle here.
There isn't really a height-weight-speed guy like Darrius Heyward-Bey or Darren McFadden this year, but even if the Raiders do go OT like I'm projecting here, look out for Maryland OT Bruce Campbell. The guy is 320 pounds and had combine numbers like you'd see from a tight end—don't underestimate Al Davis's love of the stopwatch and overall athleticism. Davis is a superbly athletic player as well—but then again, so was Michael Crabtree and we all know who the Raiders took.
9. Buffalo Bills: Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame
Now, here's the classic case of me thinking this is a stupid pick and projecting it anyway—just because I think something doesn't mean NFL executives agree with me. The Bills have glaring needs pretty much everywhere, and if I were them, I'd take Oklahoma OT Trent Williams with this pick. No matter who their QB is, if he's sitting on the ground he isn't throwing TD passes.
But this franchise is desperate, and desperate teams make desperate moves...like reaching for a savior at QB when he doesn't have any tools around him—at all—to be successful.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars: Earl Thomas, S, Texas
I know the pass rush was the big problem in Jacksonville, not the back end. But the Jags just scored big by signing Aaron Kampman and, realistically, with former first round pick Derrick Harvey at the other DE spot, they can't afford to tie up any more money at the position.
That leaves them to address their other major need: safety. With Eric Berry off the board at No. 7, the Jags will look to the next guy, Earl Thomas, who some scouts have rated ahead of Berry. A bit of a reach, perhaps, but Thomas is definitely a first round pick.
I flirted with the idea of giving the Jags Florida DB Joe Haden here—on the theory that speed concerns will get him moved to safety in the NFL—but it's not his natural position and I'm really high on Thomas anyway, so two safeties go in the top 10 of this mock.
11. Denver Broncos: Rolando McClain, LB, Alabama
Denver is losing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, and one way to compensate for losing a great coordinator is to get more talented players on that side of the ball. Rolando McClain isn't the flashiest pick, but he's a tough, physical, no-nonsense guy with a lot of upside.
I think Denver would like to go NT here, but there's no one that logically makes sense at this point, especially when they would have a real chance at McClain's teammate, Terrence "Mount" Cody in round two. This is a GREAT pick for the Broncos, although trading back for more picks would be a good idea as well.
12. Miami Dolphins: Sergio Kindle, DE/OLB, Texas
What happens when Jason Taylor is declining and Joey Porter is released? The Dolphins have a glaring need at the rush linebacker spot in their 3-4 defense. Enter Sergio Kindle, who (with McClain) is one of the two best linebacker prospects in this draft class. He'll generate a lot of pressure off the edge. Maybe Joey Porter will shut up when his production drops off and Kindle is getting 10 sacks as a rookie, but don't count on it—it's wishful thinking).
Pair this guy with newly signed Karlos Dansby and that linebacking corps is already looking pretty damn good.
Miami has a couple of different ways it could go with this pick, but remember that a great rush LB makes the entire defense better. It should be impossible to pass on Kindle if he's here.
13. San Francisco 49ers: Joe Haden, DB, Florida
While a bad 40 time will cost Haden some money, it won't keep him out of the top 15 picks, and Mike Singletary will jump at the chance to add a big-time playmaker to his secondary here, the last obvious guy with superstar potential in the defensive backfield for this year's draft class.
It's hard to argue with the pick here. Trent Williams could also be in play, but with Joe Staley already at LT, there's no real need to take a RT with San Fran's first pick. Enter Haden, who, despite speed concerns, should be a very solid NFL player.
14. Seattle Seahawks: Bruce Campbell, OT, Maryland
The problem that Seattle has had along its offensive line has continued ever since future Hall of Famer Walter Jones began having trouble staying on the field due to a recurring knee injury. Matt Hasselbeck still has it, and while he isn't the long term answer at age 34, there's no immediate pressure to replace him this year.
The logical choice—while there is still a good player at QB—is to take the LT that will protect the eventual franchise QB's blind side.
Campbell is a little bit of a project, but with a monster combine he's flying up draft boards. And let's be realistic: The Seahawks aren't going to be contenders this year.
Remember that Michael Oher was theoretically a bit of a project when selected by the Ravens in the first round last year, but he was so freakishly talented that he was in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. Campbell has that kind of talent and the Seahawks would be foolish to pass on him here.
15. New York Giants: Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Missouri
A little bit early for Weatherspoon? Perhaps, but only because the NFL has a tendency to pass on inside linebackers in the first round. Witherspoon had a decent combine and interviews very well. He's also a talker—remember that with the loss of Antonio Pierce, the Giants are losing their defensive captain.
Missing out on Karlos Dansby hurts, and the glaring need here might cause the Giants to pick Weatherspoon if they can't trade down. Be aware, though, that because of that aforementioned tendency, there is a great chance that Rolando McClain could still be here.
16. San Francisco 49ers: Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma
In this scenario the 49ers make the right call in passing on Williams at No. 13, still getting him at No. 16 overall. He gets paid a little bit less, tying up a bit less money for a RT, but at this point is probably the most polished and best tackle left on the board.
With these two picks, the 49ers almost have to become the favorites to win the NFC West...assuming, of course, that Alex Smith finally makes it happen even a little bit at QB. But that's a huge assumption, as Niner fans know...
17. Tennessee Titans: Brian Price, DT, UCLA
Without Albert Haynesworth, the Titans D suffered. Now, with the loss of Kyle Vanden Bosch and possibly others, it will suffer more unless it is addressed early and often. My personal pick here would be the all-or-nothing roll of the dice on Dez Bryant, but the hard-working Price is a much safer pick and Jeff Fisher has an annoying aversion to taking wideouts in the first round.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers: Kyle Wilson, CB, Boise State
Wilson isn't the prototypical corner but he's the best one available here, and keep in mind that while it might be reaching a little bit, Pittsburgh's division rivals, the Bengals and Ravens, might very well be interested in Wilson with their picks coming up shortly.
In addition, Pittsburgh needs to infuse some life into its defensive secondary. Taylor Mays could be in play here if the Steelers are unable to re-sign Ryan Clark—he might make a bit more sense, but if he's retained, there's no space for Mays. Patrick Robinson could also be in play, but he's too streaky on tape for the Steelers, in my estimation.
19. Atlanta Falcons: Navorro Bowman, LB, Penn State
Tough to go wrong with taking a LB out of Linebacker U, and the Falcons need a weak side playmaker. Bowman fits this job description, with good athleticism and good upside to go with the polish that seems to diffuse by osmosis into all Penn State linebackers in recent memory (and maybe ancient memory, JoePa has been coaching there for a lot longer than I've been alive).
20. Houston Texans: Patrick Robinson, CB, Florida State
He isn't the safest pick due to criticism that he sometimes takes plays off, but there's no disputing his talent. Considering who the Texans need to beat (Peyton Manning) to get into the postseason, this is a risk that makes sense to try and have a talented player match up with Reggie Wayne on the outside, especially after the loss of Dunta Robinson in free agency to the Falcons.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State
We all know the history the Bengals have with taking risky players, and the talented enigma Dez Bryant certainly fits that mold. There's no disputing his talent—together with CJ Spiller, he's one of the two guys that just keeps falling in this mock.
But Cincy has a glaring need at wideout, and even if they sign T.O., it would be tough for them to pass on Bryant here. If they do sign T.O., Oklahoma TE Jermaine Gresham could be in play (and he might be anyway), but Bryant is the pick for now.
22. New England Patriots: C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson
The Patriots will take a long look at Michigan DE/OLB Brandon Graham, for the versatility that he could provide, and may well take him anyway. But the Patriots will need ways to replace Wes Welker's production coming off a knee injury, especially early in the season.
Maroney, their former first round pick at RB, hasn't panned out, and I believe the talented Spiller might be too much for the Patriots to pass up here.
23. Green Bay Packers: Charles Brown, OT, USC
I don't care that they just re-signed Chad Clifton. He isn't a franchise caliber LT. Brown arguably isn't that either, but he'd be better than Clifton, who could be kicked over to right tackle. The Packers are missing this one piece for their offense. They have everything else, and taking Brown would allow them to fire on all cylinders a lot more consistently.
24. Philadelphia Eagles: Everson Griffin, DE, Southern California
Philly has a lot of the pieces in place, and taking Griffin here allows them to team him with the very underrated Trent Cole on the other side (Cole registered 10 sacks last season). Mike Iupati could be in play here, especially given Andy Reid's penchant for taking O-linemen, but Griffin would also help to offset the decline in secondary play, especially at the FS position.
Taylor Mays is also a possibility, but he's more of an in-the-box SS, the wrong kind of player to play in Dawk's old spot.
25. Baltimore Ravens: Golden Tate, WR, Notre Dame
Yeah, I know they just traded for Anquan Boldin. But if Tate is here, how do the Ravens pass him up? The offense suddenly looks a hell of a lot better with not one, but TWO dynamic playmakers on the outside.
Even thinking about the possibility of this fills me with glee as someone who dons purple during football season. Jermaine Gresham could be in play for the Ravens, as well, but again, if Tate's here I don't see how they could pass on him—lots of production in a pro-style offense at ND.
26. Arizona Cardinals: Mike Iupati, OG/RT, Idaho
This is a case of best player available. Ricky Sapp could be a serious possibility thanks to the departure of Karlos Dansby, but this is a deep draft and Iupati is just too good to pass up at this point. It's guaranteed that if he makes it here he got long looks from four or even five teams.
He probably can't play LT, but remember that LT isn't Matt Leinhart's blind side as a left handed QB. He adds a lot of depth along the Cards' line and gives them options.
27. Dallas Cowboys: Taylor Mays, S, USC
No way that Taylor Mays makes it past Dallas at 27. It's not that they have a huge need. It's the attitude he brings and the fact that Dallas doesn't have any particularly glaring weaknesses.
The other really good player remaining? Jermaine Gresham, the Oklahoma TE, and somehow I don't see Jason Witten making his exit from Big D any time soon.
28. San Diego Chargers: Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee
The release of longtime NT Jamal Williams creates a huge void in the Chargers' front—no pun intended. Williams is a talented, hard-working NT that could replace him and is a pretty good value for where he's getting selected. The other RBs available at this spot—notably Jahvid Best—don't quite fit now that San Diego has decided to retain the explosive Darren Sproles.
29. New York Jets: Brandon Graham, DE/OLB, Michigan
The versatile Graham comes into New York and picks up the slack that's being left by former No. 6 overall pick and draft bust Vernon Gholston. Another player that could be in play might be Illinois WR Arrelious Benn, but with all the money tied up in Braylon Edwards and Rex Ryan being a defensive guy, I suspect he'll fortify his defense even further.
Corner is no longer a need after trading for Antonio Cromartie to team with Darrelle Revis, though safety arguably is. However, that can wait until a later round with both corner spots covered.
30. Minnesota Vikings: Jared Odrick, DT, Penn State
Pat Williams seems to be heading toward retirement—if not now, then in the next year or two—and the strength of the Vikings defense is their defensive front. To keep it that way, the Vikings will take Odrick with this pick. Terrence Cody could also be in play here, but he's more of a zero-technique that doesn't quite fit what the Vikings try to do schematically. Not that he would be a bad pick, but Odrick might be a better fit.
31. Indianapolis Colts: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida
I can't imagine a better way for a Super Bowl to end than Peyton Manning choking epically. The Manning Face (thanks Bill Simmons) made a dramatic return in the Super Bowl, but that man IS the Indianapolis Colts. All joking aside, though, the Colts are a great team without any glaring needs.
Jeff Saturday, while he's great, can't play forever, and Pouncey is the best center in the draft, so I think the Colts will look to replace him with this pick. The Colts are stacked pretty much everywhere else. Terrence Cody could again be in play, but the Colts seem to shy away from big space-eaters inside, preferring a speed defense that plays with a lead.
The Colts are a real wild card, though. Without any real needs they should just take the best player on their board.
32. New Orleans Saints: Jerry Hughes, DE/OLB, TCU
As you might expect from a Super Bowl Champion, the Saints don't really have any glaring needs, assuming that they retain Pro Bowl S Darren Sharper, which is generally expected by most people around the league.
Jerry Hughes is a great pass rusher who can play at linebacker, vacated by Scott Fujita, or line up with his hand on the ground to replace the departed Charles Grant. But the Siants could go in a lot of different directions here; Hughes might not be a great scheme fit. If so, the Saints could look RB or at another LB, maybe Ricky Sapp.
That's all folks, thanks for reading. As always, comments, questions, and criticism (hopefully constructive) are all welcome.