Bowl season is winding down, and although plenty of key draft prospects have yet to play their final collegiate games, attention is quickly turning toward the NFL Draft. Will Andrew Luck and Cam Newton declare for the Draft? Where will guys like Mark Ingram go?
Some questions will be answered at the upcoming Senior Bowl, though none of those three will be there. In the meantime, we can only offer our best guess at where everyone will go on day one of the NFL Draft. Read on for a look at the top 10 picks of the first round in 2011, based on a reasonable estimate of which guys will come out early.
There has hardly been any doubt for some time that Luck would make the leap as soon as possible, and after Stanford's big win over Virginia Tech Monday in the Orange Bowl, it seems inevitable.
If he does become available, it is hard to imagine Carolina moving out of the number one slot to select anyone else. The Panthers had some of the worst quarterback play in the league this season, and Jimmy Clausen does not look like a long-term answer there. Luck is such a player, so expect him to hold up a number one Carolina jersey this April.
Who would have ever thought Denver would fall far enough to claim this second overall selection? Their second-half collapse cost Josh McDaniels his job, but it puts them in position to snag Bowers near the top of the board.
Denver's 3-4 defense is perfectly suited to Bowers' skills. He brings a strong speed rush off the corner and loves getting to the quarterback. As a bonus, Bowers has the size to put his hand in the ground and operate as a true defensive end, and the speed to stand up and rush from a linebacker spot. That flexibility gives his value a huge boost in Denver, where pass rush has been lacking. If Elvis Dumervil comes back at full strength, Denver could claim the best pass-rushing tandem in the league.
Even in the Draft, with its endless possibilities, true defensive tackle prospects with a chance to be special are rare. The Bills love Fairley, and they will probably gobble him up even rather than taking a more highly-rated player like LSU's Patrick Peterson.
Fairley is surprisingly quick and can apply pressure on the passing game, which sets him apart from so many tackle prospects who only slow down the running game by clogging the middle. Fairley's presence would give Buffalo's defensive front a physicality it has long lacked.
Tragically, Cincinnati probably will not get a look at either of the guys they might really want at this spot; Fairley and Bowers each fit the Bengals' top defensive needs better than does Peterson. The team may even explore trading down if the two defensive linemen come off the board ahead of them.
If not, though, Peterson has to be the pick. He does absolutely everything well at corner back, and his ball-hawking style makes him a perfect fit for the turnover-happy Cincinnati defensive scheme. The Bengals could also take A.J. Green here, but Peterson is a once-in-a-decade kind of corner, and that is hard to pass up.
Unless the Cardinals really are sold on Derek Anderson, Newton has to look inviting at the fifth spot. Offensive-minded Ken Whisenhunt, who so loved having wide receiver Antwaan Randle El in his arsenal, has to be licking his chops at the prospect of the ultra-versatile Newton, who has the size and arm strength to become a pure passer at the next level, too.
Paea is a tackle who may eventually move to an end spot in a 3-4 scheme, but the Browns would love to have his inside power in the meantime. Opponents gouged Cleveland for the sixth-most rushing yards in football this season, so they badly need a run stopper who can also fortify a rather anemic pass rush. Paea fits that mold.
Once the Smith quarterback carousel comes to a complete stop, the 49ers would do well to hop off and go get themselves a serious NFL passer. Mallett has the size, the arm and the general attitude to play, and play well, on Sundays, and his leadership down the stretch is what vaulted Arkansas into a BCS berth against Ohio State. The strength of his performances down the stretch and a strong showing in the Sugar Bowl should make Mallett an easy top-10 target.
This is another spot in which team need gets outweighed by the sheer blatancy of the selection. Tennessee would rather have an impact defender here, but they can hardly pass up a receiver of Green's chops. The talent drops to another tier after this choice, so Tennessee would be foolish to choose anyone else with the eighth pick. Obviously, this is another situation in which trading down could be a possibility.
Dallas had a pretty strong secondary once upon a time: Corner Terrence Newman looked like a budding star and safety Roy Williams was among the NFL's most feared hitters. Lately, though, that unit has become substantially less impressive, and it has contributed to the team's disappointments over the past few seasons. Amukamara would be a quick fix to all that. He has athleticism, size and good hands, and he would be a difference-maker for Dallas in the long term.
Dareus is a beast, an absolutely perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end for the Redskins. He stands 6'3", weighs somewhere around 310 pounds and still has the footwork to make plays against quick runners and quarterbacks. With Albert Haynesworth surely not coming back, the Redskins would be wise to immediately replace, and even exceed, his interior presence by adding Dareus to their defensive line.
11. Houston Texans: Janoris Jenkins, CB, Florida
Jenkins is an elite corner who might have gone even higher if teams in the top ten needed secondary help. Houston's miserable pass defense makes this a no-brainer.
12. Minnesota Vikings: Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Locker hurt his Draft stock by returning for a senior season and struggling, but the Vikings need a signal-caller and Locker will still be the best on the board at this point.
13. Detroit Lions: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Ingram gets to go abit ahead of schedule thanks to Detroit's need to balance its offense. Jahvid Best is a fair option, bvt Ingram gives them a bigger, more durable back and could work in tandem with Best.
14. St. Louis Rams: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
St. Louis' best receiver this season was Danny Amendola: They are in the market for a real play-maker on the outside. Jones is a big-time athlete who can force deep double coverage.
15. Miami Dolphins: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Blackmon set all kinds of records at OSU and should be neck-and-neck with Jones as the top receivers chosen after A.J. Green.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars: Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
Unlike virtually every other outside linebacker in this Draft, Ayers' primary skill is not rushing the passer. He does that well, too, having brought down the quarterback four times this season, but Ayers is even better in space on his side of the line of scrimmage: He makes a ton of tackles in the running game and has six interceptions over the past two seasons.
17. New England Patriots: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Watt is athletic, smooth and remarkably long for a defensive lineman. He is big enough to play tackle in a number of sets, which means he will have the size the Pats need as a 3-4 end.
18. San Diego Chargers: Robert Quinn, DE, UNC
Quinn is a speed demon who also has the size to stay at defensive end. That comes in handy for San Diego, but they may still stand him up and rush him off the opposite edge from Shaun Phillips. Either way, that is a pass rush opponents will hate to face.
19. New York Giants: Travis Lewis, OLB, Oklahoma
Lewis is in the Ayers mode, a guy who floats and makes plays, exactly the kind of guy Tom Coughlin's defense needed more of this season. Lewis would eliminate the need to run the chaotic three-safety sets upon which the team relied late in the season.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Tampa runs a 4-3 that requires more rush to be generated by the line itself, a task at which their incumbents failed last season. Kerrigan would bring a speed rushing element to the line, yet has the size (20 pounds bigger than Von Miller) to actually play every down at defensive end.
21. Seattle Seahawks: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Gabbert has declared for the Draft, which should excite Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and his staff: Matt Hasselbeck might be done and Charlie Whitehurst hardly looks to be the answer. Gabbert could start right away in Seattle.
22. Indianapolis Colts: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
The Colts' offensive line has finally begun to wear down over the past year and a half, and the resulting struggles by Peyton manning will send the Colts scrambling for an upgrade along that line in April.
23. Green Bay Packers: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
Aaron Rodgers' two concussions this season are evidence enough that the team must protect its passer better, and Carimi (like Packer great Mark Tauscher) is a Wisconsin boy, born and raised.
24. Kansas City Chiefs: Von Miller, OLB/DE, Texas A&M
The Chiefs would probably rather have a true defensive end like Kerrigan or Watt, but with those guys off the board, Miller makes a good deal of sense. He rushed the passer very efficiently but also makes plays in the ground game, a key consideration.
25. Philadelphia Eagles: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas
Asante Samuel's injury troubles exposed a lack of depth in the secondary for Philadelphia, so look for them to shore up that unit by taking Williams.
26. New York Jets: Adrian Clayborn, DE/DT, Iowa
Clayborn brings muscle inside and enough extra pass rush to keep the Jets happy. His primary value is in his ability to move laterally and make plays along the line against even very good running backs.
27. New Orleans Saints: Allen Bailey, DE/DT, Miami
Bailey bears striking resemblance to Clayborn, but leans more toward pass rush. he could leap-frog Clayborn with a strong Senior Bowl showing.
28. Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami
Two straight Miami alumni could come off the board, as Baltimore looks to plug the first leak in its pass defense in years.
29. Chicago Bears: Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida
The Bears allowed the most sacks in the NFL this season, and it could well cost them their season at some point in these playoffs if their pass protection does not improve. That will prompt them to go after a great offensive lineman, and Pouncey (who plays guard and center and could slide to center once Olin Kreutz ages past his utility) fits that bill.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cameron Jordan, DE/DT, California
The Steelers' defense is already daunting. Now imagine it with an added pass rush threat at a 3-4 end, perhaps coming from the same side of the line as James Harrison. Good luck.
31. New England Patriots: Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pitt
Having used Oakland's pick to nab Watt, the Patriots can add yet another weapon to Tom Brady's array by selecting Baldwin near the bottom of the first round.
32. Atlanta Falcons: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
Castonzo may actually be the safest selection on the offensive line in the first round this year. The upside guys are Carimi and Solder, but Castonzo will ably protect Matt Ryan and can really shove people around on the edge on running plays. A move inside may be in his future, but he is valuable either way.
Finally, here is a quick look at five potential impact guys who could go during the second round:
Christian Ponder: The Florida State quarterback could go to the Bills early in the second round, where he would become the future face of the franchise. That sleeper pick could be worth the wait for the Bills, as opposed to the team's other option to take Ryan Mallett above his deserved slot in the first round.
DeMarcus Love: Love was once an elite prospect for the first round as an offensive tackle, but he failed to really impress this season. He may still be one of the solid surprises among next year's rookie crop.
Mikel Leshoure: He could stay in school at Illinois and take aim at the first round in 2012, but then, Leshoure was so good down the stretch that he could go in the first round even this year. He is explosive and has great field vision.
Marvin Austin: He was forced out of his entire senior season due to rules violations, but Austin is one of the most talented pure defensive tackles in the Draft. Wherever he lands, he could make noise immediately.
DeMarco Murray: It's a tough life, succeeding Adrian Peterson as the top back at Oklahoma. It does not help that Murray is built much like Peterson, because he really does not match Peterson in any other way. Still, he can be a very good NFL running back, even a great one in the right system.