Andrew Luck will change the fortunes of an NFL franchise. The only question is if that will be this year or if he will return for his junior year.
Although the season has officially ended for the twenty teams who failed to make the playoffs, it has really only just begun for them. Obviously there are holes on their rosters, with some teams having more than others. These teams can shift their focus from game-planning to scouting as they make that vital decision on who they will become their new poster child for renewed hope come next fall.
It remains to be seen exactly who will declare for the draft, but it is certain that these potential early entries are among some of the biggest names in NFL circles and are likely to dominate the top five picks. Notable underclassmen include Andrew Luck, Nick Fairley, Patrick Peterson, A.J. Green, Da'Quan Bowers, and Heisman winner Cam Newton. I would expect most, if not all of them, to declare, so I will consider them all in the mock.
If you agree or disagree with your team's choice, please comment and give me as much information why as you can. Saying "I hate Cam Newton" isn't going to make me reconsider where I've put him, but give legitimate reasons and I'll be sure to reconsider. Without further adieu, it's time for the mock.
There have been recent conflicting reports about whether or not the Panthers will select Luck if he decides against returning to Stanford to finish off his degree. The fact of the matter is if Luck is available, you cannot pass on him. Just a redshirt sophomore, his only "blemishes" on the year were his game against UCLA in which he went 11-24 for 151 yds and two TDs and had seven rushes for 63 yds (in a 35-0 win, I might add) and allowing Oregon to come from behind to beat the Cardinal, a game in which he ended up going 29-46 for 341 yds passing with three total TDs and two INTs.
He is the prototype at the quarterback position, very reminiscent of Matt Ryan. It's hard to say he has any weaknesses to his game; he has to be the most polished, pro-ready quarterback in history. Naysayers of this pick would point to Jimmy Clausen, whom the Panthers just invested a second round pick on last year. The fact of the matter is that Clausen hasn't done enough to prove that he is the answer for the Panthers. He has shown flashes, but so did Vince Young and Matt Leinart and just about every young quarterback with talent. Andrew Luck is the closest thing to a lock that I've seen at quarterback—the single most important position on the field. If they pass on him, it would be a mistake we look back on for years, if not decades.
Denver has a lot of great building blocks on offense. Tim Tebow has been better than I expected far sooner than I would have thought, Knowshon Moreno is a very good back when healthy, and Demaryius Thomas showed game-breaking ability in his first game but was nagged with injuries the rest of the year. Their defense, however, is in serious need of an infusion of talent. Losing Elvis Dumervil in the preseason was the least of their worries, as they ended up finishing last in the league in total defense, allowing almost 250 yds/g through the air and over 150 yds/g on the ground.
A big factor in this decision will be whether or not Champ Bailey decides to re-up with the Broncos. He is 32 years old but has shown few signs of decline. I'm sure the team would love to have him back, but I'm not so sure they want the big contract he is assuredly looking for. If they do lose him to free agency, Patrick Peterson becomes a very intriguing replacement, but I think that the team will make the right decision and keep Bailey around.
This means the man that makes the most sense for Denver is Auburn's disruptive DT Nick Fairley. Although he is a one year wonder, what a wonder he has been. Going into the national title game, Fairley had 55 tackles and 10.5 sacks on the year, which led the SEC. The Lombardi award winner as the nation's best lineman has consistently been a dominant force all year long, particularly against LSU, against whom he had six tackles and three sacks. His playmaking ability from the interior reminds me a lot of Ndamukong Suh, who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season.
The Broncos could take him and plug him in immediately as a 3-4 end who can stuff the run and provide pressure on the quarterback. It may not be as good of a fit as the 4-3 is for him, but he simply has too much ability to be a failure at 3-4 end. Nick Fairley at defensive end sure sounds a lot better than Kevin Vickerson or Justin Bannan.
Yeah that Heisman pose was a little ridiculous, but at least Peterson did win the "defensive Heisman," the Bednarik Award. His rare combination of size (6'1", 220 lbs) and 4.4 speed wows scouts, but he is obviously much more than just a raw athlete. He is widely considered the best shutdown corner in the nation, and when he gets the ball in his hands, he makes plays. He averaged 24 yards per return on his seven career interceptions, and has taken the ball to the house on punt returns, too. Scouts may question if he's too tall to play corner, but I'd say I wouldn't mind putting him on some of the tall, athletic threats at wide receiver like Calvin Johnson or Andre Johnson.
I would not pick Peterson if I were the Bills, but I think he's the guy they would take. Look at C.J. Spiller last year: not the biggest positional need, but probably the most talent. Terrence McGee appears to be losing a step and Drayton Florence will be a free agent come this summer, so corner is probably a bigger need than it is perceived. Personally, I would go with Da'Quan Bowers or try to trade down and get Marcell Dareus or Adrian Clayborn to shore up the front seven, but I believe the re-signing of Shawne Merriman, plus the emergence of Arthur Moats, will stop the Bills from taking an OLB. Buddy Nix obviously likes to choose the best player available, and in this case it is Patrick Peterson.
The Bengals probably overachieved last year to win the AFC North, but I don't think anyone could have seen them falling this far this fast. T.O. put up some big numbers in his first (and probably only) year with the Bengals. However, his presence seemed to hurt the team as much as it helped them...go figure. Carson Palmer seemed to force the ball to T.O. in order to try to keep him happy, which caused him to tie his career high of 20 INTs. The offense seemed potent at times and then inept at others. The funny thing is, Palmer seemed to play better the last two weeks of the year, when T.O. and Ochocinco sat out. I wouldn't be surprised to see the team get rid of both Owens and Chad Ochocinco and try to get a new start.
If they do part with these two super-egos, there would still be an undeniable hole at wide receiver. A.J. Green would certainly be able to fill that void, minus all of the off-the-field trouble. Actually, I should say most, not all. Green was suspended the first four games of this year for selling a game-used jersey, but that's far less concerning than the drama created by the divas they currently have at the position. Giving Carson Palmer a talented wide receiver who doesn't have him inclined to go out of his way to get him the ball would be the best thing for him, and a receiving corps of Green, Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson, and Jermaine Gresham would be pretty potent.
Part of the thinking behind this pick was that there really wasn't anyone else for them to take this high. Carlos Dunlap really started to come into his own towards the end of the year. He, along with Michael Johnson and Antwan Odom, appear to have them pretty set at DE, so I couldn't give them Bowers. They could take Dareus to play DT, but he played in a 3-4 in college, so he appears more suited for that in the NFL. They may try to trade down and take someone like Stephen Paea, but if they stand pat I think Green offers them the best value.
Personally, I do not think Cam Newton will be a successful quarterback in the NFL. He reminds me a lot of Vince Young, whom I did like at the time, but has proven to be a major bust. I believe he won't be able to run the ball like he does at the college level, and then the passing game won't be so easy for him. I'm of the belief that running quarterbacks don't win in the NFL; mobile QBs like Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers can be successful, but flat-out runners don't work against sophisticated, athletic NFL defenses. However, I don't do the drafting, so some team will fall in love with Cam Newton's talent and take him high in the first round.
There certainly are things to like about Cam Newton. He didn't win the Heisman for nothing. You shouldn't be that fast and elusive if you're 6'6", 250 lbs. He also has a rocket arm and is capable of making any throw you could ask for. No one can honestly say they think the Cardinals are fine at quarterback with Derek Anderson, Max Hall, and John Skelton. Todd McShay currently predicts the Cardinals will take Blaine Gabbert of Missouri, which shocked me at first, but honestly may be the better pick. Nonetheless, Arizona will fall in love with Cam's penchant for big plays and hope he can re-energize their offense.
The Browns are able to get a steal with the number six pick in Bowers, who has finally started to look like the player he was supposed to be. A top recruit out of high school, Bowers was considered a disappointment his first two years at Clemson, but exploded for 15.5 sacks and 16 TFL. He has great speed and quickness at 6'4", 280 lbs, and could provide the pass rusher the Browns thought they had in Kamerion Wimbley, who did have nine sacks for the Raiders this year. Another great thing about Bowers was his consistency; he recorded a sack in all but three games this year. It's not like he got five sacks against a couple FCS pushovers at the beginning of the year; he was getting them against everybody. Marcell Dareus may be a safer pick because it's uncertain if Bowers would play end or backer in the 3-4, but I believe Bowers has the elite athleticism to fit at 3-4 OLB. Joe Haden has been very good for the Browns this year; now, Bowers will give them a playmaker in the front seven.
Some scouts view Amukamara as just as good, if not a better prospect, as Patrick Peterson, so the 49ers may be getting a steal here. Also a big corner at 6'1", 205, Amukamara made opposing teams look for other guys to throw at. As is often the case with the best corners, stats don't tell the whole story. If teams aren't throwing at you, it's hard to accumulate stats. Amukamara would instantly shore up the 49ers secondary, who could really use some young talent. Nate Clements hasn't validated the huge free agent deal he received, and his days in San Fran may be numbered.
Quarterback is also a consideration for the 49ers, but I can't see anyone worth taking this high. Someone like Gabbert or Ryan Mallett could be a fine pick if they traded down, but the seventh pick is just not good value for them. They may trade down or look for a signal caller in the second round.
I realize I just said seventh overall would be too high for a QB, but the Titans are so desperate for one that they have to take one at this spot. They just officially got rid of Vince Young, Kerry Collins isn't getting any younger, and Rusty Smith...well, he kinda looks rusty out there (yeah, sorry I went there). Teams are able to focus so much on stopping Chris Johnson because the Titans passing game doesn't pose much of a threat. Bringing in someone like Gabbert would help to remedy that. A very accurate passer, Gabbert has just about everything you look for in a quarterback.
He looked very good in the Insight Bowl until his mind-numbing interception which cost his team the game, but that doesn't take away from his body of work. Some may say they will go with Mallett at this spot, but it sounds like Gabbert is trending upward while Mallett is going in the opposite direction.
Dareus is likely too good to pass up for the 'Boys at the number nine spot. Dallas had their struggles on defense this year, and Dareus would give them another big body to help against the run and provide some pressure on the passer. The Cowboys appear to be in much better shape with Jason Garrett at the helm than Wade Phillips, but their defense still did not play as well as it should have. I've heard Dareus could go anywhere from third overall to the second round, but I'd expect him to go sooner rather than later. He had a real coming out party in the national championship game last year and has done nothing to make scouts think less of him this year. He is a great fit in the Cowboys' 3-4, and will be able to get on the field consistently right away.
The 'Skins would have really liked to get Dareus, but it looks like they'll have to "settle" for Adrian Clayborn. Washington was just atrocious on defense this year, finishing 31st in the league after ranking in the top ten last year. They may scrap the 3-4 if it fails so miserably again next year, which would not be an issue if they take Clayborn. He has excelled in Iowa's 4-3, totalling 19 sacks in his time there. He does have the size to play 3-4 end too at 6'4", 285 lbs. He would nicely complement Brian Orakpo and would help to stop debacles like the Michael Vick show on Monday night from happening again.
The Texans were a major disappointment after running through the Colts in Week 1, and that can largely be credited to their pass defense. Their offense is certainly good enough to make the playoffs, but their corners could not slow down anyone. Janoris Jenkins is a great corner who could help them take a step in the right direction next year.
A very talented underclassman, Jenkins has started at Florida since his freshman year. He has consistently been one of the best corners in the country and could make an immediate impact at the pro level, much like his college teammate Joe Haden. I realize they just took Kareem Jackson in the first round last year, but the only highlight I saw from Glover Quin this year was swatting the ball right to Mike Thomas to give the Jaguars the win. Jenkins and Jackson should be one of the more feared cornerback duos in two or three years.
I think we can officially say it now: the Brett Favre era is over in Minnesota. This leaves them with Tarvaris Jackson and Joe Webb at the position. They may have talent, but I don't think either one of them is the answer. Mallett would be a great young arm who hopefully could be their quarterback of the future.
He has had his ups and downs, but Mallett's talent is undeniable. He may have the best arm in the draft and certainly has the size scouts look for at 6'6", 240 lbs. He threw for almost 4,000 yards and 32 TDs this year, but failed to come through in the clutch versus Alabama and Ohio State and played poorly against Auburn. He struggled in his biggest moments, and scouts question his footwork and mobility. Nonetheless, Mallett is a pocket passer in the mold of Drew Bledsoe who could develop into a great quarterback, so he is the man for the Vikings.
The Lions were probably the most improved team this year, especially considering they really beat the Bears in Week 1. It's amazing they were able to do as well as they did with the revolving door they had at quarterback, having to turn to third-stringer Drew Stanton after injuries to Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill. The top priority has to be stopping this in the future, and Nate Solder is the best man for the job.
There is no elite tackle in this year's class, but Solder appears to be the best of the bunch. He is graded out as a mid-first round pick, and his biggest value would be in preserving their first overall investment in Matthew Stafford, who has looked very good when healthy. Jeff Backus is old and solid at best, so bringing in Solder makes a lot of sense.
The Rams take the wild card of the draft in Robert Quinn. Considered a top ten pick going into the year, Quinn was suspended for the year amidst major scandal at UNC. He could provide the best value of anyone selected so far, but he has only played two years, so there is some uncertainty surrounding him.
Quinn is an elite pass rusher who has the talent to be a star at the next level. He had 11 sacks as a sophomore and was poised for an even better year until his suspension. Pairing him with Chris Long, who finally started to look worthy of the number two overall pick, would be potent. Their secondary is a bit weak, but a better pass rush makes better corners. The Rams take a chance on Quinn and hope he develops into the player it looked like he was becoming.
If I were the Dolphins, I would strongly consider paying any price to trade up and get Andrew Luck. I believe they are just a quarterback away from being a legit contender, and rumors of Jim Harbaugh taking his talents to South Beach would only fuel this possibility. However, I doubt they or the Panthers would make such a major move and most of the big name quarterbacks are gone, so I think the Dolphins surprise many and take Mark Ingram.
The Dolphins backfield is in flux. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are both free agents. Brown has always had issues with injuries and Williams is supposedly considering retirement. It is not worth reaching on a quarterback like Jake Locker, so the Fins get great value in Mark Ingram. The former Heisman winner could unquestionably be their lead back right away. Running back doesn't look like their biggest need right now, but it may be one of them come April.
I know, I know, the Jags have been taking D-ends for years with little success. The fact of the matter, though, is they still don't have that guy. Von Miller would be a great pass rusher who could finally put to rest their need for someone who can give Peyton Manning fits.
Miller struggled at the beginning of this year, but really hit stride at the midway point. He had sacks in seven of his last eight games, including seven sacks over the last four games. Couple this with his 17 sack season from last year, and it's evident that Miller is a pass rushing force. He may fit better in a 3-4 at OLB, but this guy can flat out rush the passer. This pick may enfuriate Jags fans, but if he starts putting up 10 sacks a year, then I think they won't be so upset with him.
You might be asking how the Pats are picking this high. The top 20 picks are for the non-playoff bound teams, of course. Well, New England acquired this pick from the Raiders in exchange for Richard Seymour last season. Looks like a solid deal for both teams, but as always, the Pats have done their thing in stockpiling draft picks. They have two picks in each of the first three rounds, and it looks as though the rich will just keep getting richer.
The Pats have always had a tendency towards taking linemen in the first round, and Pouncey could provide the versatility they look for. Mike is the twin brother of Steelers first round pick Maurkice Pouncey, who has had a very successful rookie year. He can play either center or guard, which would be very valuable to New England. They have had their issues with Logan Mankins, who likely will be a goner after this year, and center Dan Koppen becomes a free agent after next year. Pouncey could play left guard for them next year and possibly slide to center if they don't keep Koppen. This pick makes a lot of sense for the Pats, not that they really need much help.
Maybe the Chargers should just take a special teamer in the first round. At one point, they were first in the league in offense and defense, yet had a losing record. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they don't do that, though, so Cam Heyward is the man for them.
Heyward was hyped up as a potential top 15 pick coming into the year, but slid a little due to inconsistency. However, he dominated the Sugar Bowl and has moved back up draft boards. He certainly has the size to play end in a 3-4 at 6'5", 290 lbs, and would be a good pick for the Chargers, who honestly don't have many needs.
The Giants seriously need help at the linebacker position, so they opt to make Ayers the first true linebacker off the board. The Giants defense fell apart at the end of the season, most notably allowing the Eagles to come back and effectively knock them out of the playoffs.
Ayers, who has officially declared for the draft, had a great season, totalling 68 tackles, 10 TFL, four sacks, and two picks on the season. Keith Bulluck is past his prime and the G-men could really use a linebacker who goes out there and makes big plays, not just tackles. Ayers fits the bill, and the Giants are glad to bring in this rangy young linebacker.
The Bucs have all the makings of a great offense with Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, Mike Williams, and Arrelious Benn, but their defense really let them down at the end of the year. They got torched by Ryan Torain and their run defense was very suspect. I was tempted to give them Stephen Paea, but you have to remember they took DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in the first two rounds last year. They still could use help along the line, though, so Ryan Kerrigan makes a lot of sense.
A First Team All-American, Kerrigan brings value against the run and pass. He had 25 sacks over the past two seasons, which the Bucs could really use. The Bucs don't have that guy who can really get after the passer, and Kerrigan gives them great value at 20. Hopefully, McCoy and Price can come back strong next year, and adding Kerrigan to them would give Tampa arguably the best young talent across the defensive line.