Today, we look into the crystal ball and see Andrew Luck, fresh off of leading the Stanford Cardinal to a victory in the Orange Bowl, suddenly decide that this college thing really appeals to him and Tim Tebow had the right idea.
In this fantasy, Luck sees all those projections of him already being the number one overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and thinks to himself that the riches can wait. He's certainly got a good thing going right now on campus.
Stanford has just finished one of its best seasons ever, and while we're making predictions here, let's say that Coach Harbaugh gets the warm fuzzies as well and decides to pass up any NFL offers that might be brewing for him (any NFL offers from oh, just up the peninsula), since dominating in college is way better than being mediocre in the pros. (It's certainly an easier decision for a coach to make, after all, he's already getting paid anyway).
Upon hearing this news, the Carolina Panthers brass (after throwing a tantrum) must get down to the business of picking someone else, and the rest of the league smirks a bit before figuring out their selections in this un-Luck-y (yeah, I did it) turn of events. Who will those selections be? Read on...
(One note: picks 21-32 are based off of regular season records right now, but obviously could change based on playoff results. We're going with what we got for now. Sue me.)
Now, obviously any of the other top underclassmen prospects may also opt to stay in school, but for the sake of argument here, I've decided to say that other players who would go in the first round will come out.
This is certainly the case for Georgia's A.J. Green, who would likely be happy to leave a college game where he was suspended for the first four games of this past season for selling his Independence Bowl jersey from last year. Despite that belated start, he still set a career high with 57 receptions this year and scored nine touchdowns.
Green has the size (6'4", 212 lbs.) and speed (4.49 40) to be a force at any level, and could be compared to another big wideout that played college ball in this state, Calvin Johnson. He would also give Carolina a legitimate heir apparent to Steve Smith.
If (and that's a big 'if') Luck pulls a Tebow, look for Carolina to snatch up Green here.
Peterson's stock has risen of late and he could legitimately be expected to be taken before the other consensus top cornerback, Nebraska's Prince Amukamara.
I believe that's what will happen, as the Broncos will make him their pick here. At 6'1", 222 lbs., the draft-eligible junior has good size and strength at the corner position and could even eventually make a shift to safety.
LSU will be losing a lot of players to the draft, and the loss of Peterson will hurt as much as any, but they're LSU. They'll recover.
Bowers is another player whose draft stock has been skyrocketing in recent weeks.
Ranked by some as the top recruit in the nation out of high school, his first two college seasons were somewhat underwhelming but he rebounded in a big way this year, leading the nation in sacks and winning the Hendricks award as the best DE in the country.
He's big, he's athletic, and he's coming for your quarterback. The Bills could use a top tier pass rusher like Bowers to shore up their lackluster defense.
Fairley still has one more game to go to really leave that lasting impression on NFL scouts, but his draft stock seems fairly secure at this point (see what I did there, again? I'm so clever).
Most opposing offensive linemen seemed overmatched against the 6'5", 300 lb. Fairley, and he's racked up 55 tackles and 11 sacks so far this year. If Auburn is to win the national title, he'll have to be a big reason why.
The Bengals obviously disappointed in a number of areas this year, but generating a better pass rush is as good a place to start fixing things as any.
Amukamara's stock has fallen ever so slightly it seems (see my notes on Patrick Peterson at No. 2), but not very far, and he still rates as a legitimate shut-down corner and a top-5 pick.
His lack of interceptions this year amounts to the same thing that plagues so many of the top cornerbacks, even in the NFL: Opposing quarterbacks simply don't throw the ball his way if they can help it (see Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha). Obviously though, that's actually a good thing. His five picks last season show that he's got that part of his game in his pocket.
Lots of talk has been swirling about the Cardinals and looking for a quarterback (again), as their season this year was marked by lots of uncertainty behind center, but with Luck either still in school or off the board, no other available QB makes sense here. You don't just draft a QB for the sake of it. And as the 49ers and Alex Smith showed just this past week, the Cardinals' pass defense could use a shot in the arm.
Dareus has at times looked like the proverbial man playing amongst boys in college, and for good reason. At 6'4" and 306 lbs., he dwarfs many other college linemen.
Alabama has always been known for its defense, and that's just as true as ever now, in large part thanks to number 57. With Alabama likely to lose more than a few of its top players to the NFL, count on Dareus to not want to be the last one at a party that's already over.
As with most teams, the Browns could do worse than getting a big, physical defensive lineman who can command a double team on any down.
OK, so remember a couple of slides ago when I talked about not drafting a QB just for the sake of it? Well, that's still true, and I know Mallett's stock has started to slide a bit, but these are extenuating circumstances in the City by the Bay.
Alex Smith is a free agent and will most likely not be back next season. Nothing against him, just a bit of a "been there, done that" effect for him. They've been down that road, time to move on. Same goes for Troy Smith. That leaves the Niners in desperate need of a signal caller. I know Cam Newton is still on the board in this projection, but I see Mallett as fitting better into the 49ers system here.
Mallett's 6'6" and he's got a big arm, having thrown for over 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns this season. He's faced top tier competition in the brutal SEC West. He's got the tools, and I think the 49ers are willing to take the chance that he's capable of developing his football IQ and being coached.
Wow, lots of defensive linemen going early, huh? Well, it's a talented crop. Robert Quinn continues the trend.
Quinn recorded 52 tackles and 11 sacks for a surprisingly respectable Tar Heels' defensive unit in 2009. His 2010 season was ruined by an ineligibility ruling from the NCAA, but he'll certainly be looking to get his career back on track in the NFL.
Despite his off-field issues, he still rates as a top tier pass rusher off the end who could help the Titans round out their defensive front.
And another one. Stop me if you've heard me say this before: He's a talented defensive end who can rush the passer and help any team's defensive front.
OK, now that the platitudes are out of the way, I can mention the fact that it's clear that Clayborn took a bit of a step back in 2010 after a sensational 2009. Nevertheless, he continues to rate high on most draft boards and should be spoken for by the middle of round one.
Playing in the defense heavy Big Ten gave him good experience. Dallas needs help on defense, and Clayborn could fit right in.
OK, Auburn fans, you can stop grumbling. Here he is. Newton slots in at number 10 for the Redskins.
It became clear late in the season that Donovan McNabb isn't getting any younger, and isn't a long term solution at QB for Washington. He even got benched towards the end of the year.
That means the 'Skins will be on the lookout for a new quarterback in the draft. I originally had thought of Jake Locker, but questions have popped up about his readiness and his value has taken a tumble. So, enter Newton.
Comparisons have already been made to Tim Tebow, and that's because they're on point. Newton is even more of a gifted physical specimen, and perhaps even more dynamic with both his arm and his legs. As with Tebow though, the questions are whether that skill set translates into being a franchise QB in the pros.
His potential upside is high enough that Washington takes a chance on him fulfilling it.
I must have a thing for certain positions. First it was defensive linemen, and now it's cornerbacks.
Yeah, I know Jenkins is the third CB I list as going in the top 11, but hey, these things go in cycles. Who knows, next year could be the year that a bunch of fullbacks go in the top 10.
Ok, maybe not, but either way, Jenkins has experience at the top of the college game and no fear of anyone. He should be a good fit in a Texas' secondary that needs to continue to improve, and he can certainly help.
OK, back to the defensive linemen. J.J. Watt had another stellar year in 2010, and despite the Rose Bowl disappointment, is poised to be a force in the NFL for many years.
Finishing the season with 62 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and even an interception to boot, Watt contributes in almost every defensive area. Again, playing in the defensive minded Big Ten, and especially for defensive power Wisconsin should only let him acclimate that much more quickly to the speed of the pro game.
Team Watt with Jared Allen and the Vikings have a formidable duo coming off both ends next year.
OK, don't say it, because I already know. Another cornerback, right?
Well, it's the Lions, who have a rather porous pass defense, don't you think? With young talent already showing some potential at many of the skill positions and on the defensive line, the secondary is a natural place to turn next for a boost.
Harris has been overshadowed a bit in college by some of the bigger names, and since Miami has fallen just a bit from national prominence. Even so, he can still blanket even the best of receivers, and given 100% effort and hustle on every down.
The St. Louis Rams showed this year that they have a good thing brewing. Sam Bradford actually lived up to the hype, for the most part, and led the Rams to the brink of a division title, albeit in the sad sack NFC West.
Losing that division on Sunday to Seattle actually helped the Rams in the draft significantly, as they'll pick seven places higher than they would have if they had won. That will allow them to give Bradford someone to throw to next year.
Jones is a dynamic talent who is capable of more than he showed playing for conservative, ball-control Alabama. Look for him to be a breakout star once he reaches the NFL. Things are looking up in the Show Me State.
Yep, the Crimson Tide get plundered again for the 15th pick.
Ingram, college football's golden boy a year ago after a Heisman Trophy and National Title winning season, had his shine dulled just a bit this season, but his talent is still evident and he's easily the best ballcarrier in the draft.
The Dolphins could use someone who can lead the charge for their running game in the future with uncertainty always swirling around Ricky Williams. Ingram is a versatile back who is used to being featured heavily and can adjust to Miami's many different offensive schemes.
Wide receiver is a bit of a thin position coming into the 2011 NFL Draft after A.J. Green, and even most of the top receiver prospects that are out there are either underclassmen, or have some questions surrounding their game.
Justin Blackmon is only a sophomore, but his eye popping numbers this year caught the attention of many pro scouts and he'll find a job quickly if he chooses to come out. Chances are he will.
In 12 games this season, the 6'1", 207 lb. Blackmon caught 111 passes for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns. He had over 100 yards receiving and at least one touchdown in every game.
With that kind of resume, the Big 12's loss is the NFL's gain.
How do the Patriots manage to do this every year? They swindle some unsuspecting team (or teams) and somehow, despite being one of the best teams in the league, still come away with a decent draft pick.
This time it's the Raiders who gave their pick to New England in last year's Richard Seymour deal. Bill Belichick and company could use this pick to take the first offensive lineman to come off the board, and my guess is that it may be Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod.
The 6'6", 305 lb. senior is very mature physically and mentally, and has the ability to be a starter right away. Tom Brady will certainly be happy to have as much protection as he can get.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan could see himself staying in the Golden State if he's still available when the San Diego Chargers select at pick 18.
The Cal Bear was steadily productive throughout his four years in college, and is nimble enough to be able to adjust to the faster pace of the pro game.
San Diego played just well enough to not make the playoffs. They're one of the best teams that won't be playing anymore. With the disharmony and discord evident there this season, including the outster of longtime standout Shawne Merriman, Jordan looks to fill a void heading into 2011.
Speaking of the best teams not to make the playoffs, the Giants played their way out with critical losses down the stretch to Philadelphia and Green Bay. They'll certainly be looking to make amends in 2011.
One of the best areas they could look to upgrade would be the offensive line, which has been together and effective for a while now, but is starting to crack and show its age just a bit.
Castonzo has the moxie to warrant a first round pick at such an unglamorous position, and New York is the kind of organization, and the kind of market, that will appreciate the intangibles a blue-collar player like him brings to the table.
Kerrigan is another blue-collar player. He gives 100% effort on every down, and parlayed that hustle into a stellar collegiate career at Purdue.
He's been one of the nation's best defensive linemen the last two seasons, totaling 136 tackles and 25 sacks during that time frame. He's got a high football IQ that will serve him well in the NFL, and is very coachable.
Tampa experienced a revolution this year, and was one of the most improved teams in the league this year, along with Kansas City. Look for them to only continue to improve by adding this mature lineman into the mix.
This homegrown kid will find a landing spot here at number 21 with the Seahawks.
His stock has fallen off dramatically of late, and he did his image no favors with a 5-16, 56 yard throwing effort in the Holiday Bowl (despite claiming the win), but he still has good arm strength and a prototypical quarterback build.
Seattle should certainly be looking to the future at QB, and if Locker can keep his head on straight, he could be a nice little redemption story. In any event, he's worth a shot at number 21.
The Chiefs will have lucked out if Miller falls into their laps here at 22.
Miller was this season's Butkus Award winner as college football's best linebacker. He's recorded 27 sacks over the last two years, and brings an intensity and a leadership quality that can inspire other players to pick their games up to match his level. Dare I invoke the name of Ray Lewis as a comparison, albeit at a slightly different position?
Kansas City is fresh off of a season of new beginnings that saw them win the AFC West, and turn into one of the darlings of the league. Add Miller to the mix, and what did I say about things looking up in the Show Me State?
Once you get this late into the round, contingencies take over and its more difficult to predict specific placements. There are bound to be some surprises early that will change how things shake up late.
Despite that uncertainty, it's a good idea for Indy to look to bolster their offensive line going into 2011, as Peyton Manning's health and sanity are as important as anything to the Colts plans. Nate Solder didn't get a great deal of national exposure, playing as he did for Colorado, but his talent makes his more than just another big body.
He's got good instincts, and a nose for maintaining contact. Peyton is already breathing a sigh of relief.
The next LSU domino to fall should be defensive tackle Drake Nevis.
The Louisiana native had six sacks this year, and has an eye for finding the lanes that lead him to the football. Playing as part of LSU's pro-style defensive schemes should aid his development. And as a senior, he's got the maturity to come in and make an impact right away.
Philadelphia gets a lot of attention this year for its high-rolling all-or-nothing (all more often than nothing) offense this year, and its defense has faded a bit into the background. That's because it wasn't all that great. Nevis will be a reason why that changes in 2011.
Ayers could certainly find himself off the board earlier than this, as he was a standout at UCLA this season whose draft stock has been steadily rising since September.
If he lasts until number 25, the Packers will happily scoop him up. He gave fans a reason to watch Bruins games this year, and finished with 68 tackles and four sacks. Even more impressively, he's got six interceptions over the last two years.
With his versatility, he can rush the passer or drop into coverage. The Packers like that kind of versatility.
The Saints are a team that is already pretty strong in most areas. So what does a team like that, with stalwarts already in place at most skill positions, look to do? Get a granite block of an offensive lineman, that's what.
That's exactly what Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi is. As would be expected for a team like the Badgers, Carimi excels in run-blocking, but is no slouch in pass protection, either.
As I've mentioned here already with New England and Indianapolis, the passing game can always use as much help as it can get. Drew Brees' arm is the Saints' most valuable asset, and they'll be insuring it that much more with Carimi on board.
The Bears are another team, perhaps even more than any of the others I've mentioned so far, that can certainly use some reinforcements there as Jay Cutler, I'm sure, would be happy to tell you; and Tyron Smith certainly fills the gaps there.
Playing in a pro style system in college at USC, he's a bit more advanced than some of the other top offensive linemen in pass protection. That's a good thing for the Bears, who can be even more formidable with Smith helping to plug the leaks.
Heyward sneaks into the first round here at number 28 for the Jets.
The Jets have looked a bit vulnerable on both sides of the football in the second half of the season. They showed last year, though, that with Rex Ryan on board, the defensive side is the bread and butter. Shore that up, and they can work with Mark Sanchez and what they have on offense.
The 6'5", 288 lb. Heyward is the son of former NFL running back Craig Heyward. With that size, and those bloodlines, Rex Ryan will want him roaming the field for Gang Green in 2011.
Wisniewski is a prototypical center, not thinking twice about butting heads and doing the often thankless dirty work. Even his name sounds like a center, doesn't it? Like someone who would've played in the 1950's and had some black-and-white portraits taken of him with grass in his helmet and blood streaming down his face.
It makes sense. The second-team All-American is the nephew of Steve Wisniewski, an eight-time Pro-Bowler himself. Baltimore is a piece or two away from truly jumping into the league's elite. Wisniewski could be one of those pieces. A big, angular, salty, dirty piece.
Yeah, this is the year that seven offensive linemen go in the first round. You got a problem with that?
Pouncey is a holdover from Florida's glory days of the recent, Tebow-led past. The 6'4", 310 lb. senior knows what it takes to protect a QB who's your bread-and-butter. Now he can do the same thing for Big Ben.
Pittsburgh is another blue-collar town that will appreciate the little things that Pouncey can do, even if he's not filling up the stat sheet, and his brother Maurkice is already there. A perfect fit.
Floyd is a question mark at this point. He might elect to stay in South Bend, but if he jumps ship, he'll probably be a late first round or early second rounder.
Atlanta has a good thing going right now, having just finished off an impressive 13-3 season that gave them the number one seed in the NFC. Matt Ryan is one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, but he could use some more weapons to throw to.
Floyd is a legitimate deep threat who is still developing his game, and therefore has a high upside. An upgraded passing attack would be bad news for the Falcons' NFC foes in 2011.
Rounding out the first 32, it's ... of course, it's the Patriots again, those sneaky buggers.
Having already solidifed their offensive line at 17, they can now turn their attention to the defensive line here. Stephen Paea can get the job done on that front.
He had 45 tackles and 6 sacks this year, and held up well (even though his team didn't) in the season's last two games against the best the Pac-10 had to offer, in Stanford and Oregon. He's a good system guy whose whole is greater than the sum of his parts.
New England will be pleased.