2011 NFL Mock Draft: Could Nick Fairley Be the Carolina Panthers' Savior?
Last week, Nick Fairley confirmed one of the worst kept secrets in sports, and announced that he is, in fact, making himself eligible for the 2011 NFL Draft.
It's an understandable decision. Fairly won the Lombardi Award and led Auburn to an undefeated season and a National Championship, dominating in the title game against Oregon so much that you could rightfully say that his play was the deciding factor. Oregon couldn't get its running game going at all, and Fairley was in Darron Thomas' face all night.
So, with Andrew Luck not an option, does Fairley become the new man who would be king? I didn't think so in my last mock draft, but that was before last week's title game heroics, and before we found out which juniors were going back to school.
Now that we have a clearer picture, let's try to predict the future once more.
1) Carolina Panthers: Nick Fairley, DE/DT, Auburn
In my last mock draft, I listed Georgia wideout A.J. Green as going first overall, and I still think he could, but the impression Fairley left in the BCS National Championship was indelible.
He's not Ndamukong Suh, but he's pretty darn close. And with no Andrew Luck to choose, he seems to be the most sure thing at this point. People like to look at quarterbacks at number one, and the Panthers could certainly upgrade there (sorry, Jimmy Clausen), but the fact is, no quarterbacks this year are worthy of that honor.
Fairley has earned a well-deserved reputation as a dirty player, but that's not enough of a knock to scare anyone away from a player with his unquestioned ability to disrupt any offense.
2) Denver Broncos: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Peterson stays at number two in this projection.
In today's NFL, top defensive backs are an increasingly valuable commodity, with the passing game becoming an ever more dominant part of most teams' offenses. Guys like Darrelle Revis of the Jets have shown that being able to match up one-on-one against a team's top wideout frees up your defense to do so many different things than would otherwise be possible.
With the Broncos existing situation in the defensive backfield anything but calm (everything from free agency to suspensions clouding the picture), Peterson would be a solid choice.
3) Buffalo Bills: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
I know the Bills need a lot of help on the defensive side of the ball, but I think Green has the potential upside to be a special talent.
You also can't say that Buffalo couldn't use a deep threat for their offense. In his third season, Steve Johnson came out of nowhere to have a very impressive season, but beyond him, the Bills had nobody who caught more than 37 passes.
Green compares favorably to other top wide receivers, and his size and athletic ability will allow him to make plays that others can't. A truly elite pass catcher, like an elite corner, allows you to do so many different things with your offense. And that's what Green is.
4) Cincinnati Bengals: Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Bowers certainly had a dominant season in 2010, and is projected by some as a potential number one overall pick.
For me, though, there are still too many questions surrounding him to warrant him going before someone like Fairley. Was his breakthrough year a sign of things to come, or an aberration? His potential upside is huge, but his drive and his consistency make him a bit of a risk.
Nevertheless, he shouldn't fall past Cincy. As always seems to be the case with them, they could use defensive help, and Bowers can provide it. At his best, he's a pass rushing monster with an arsenal of ways to neutralize the opposing quarterback.
5) Arizona Cardinals: Marcell Dareus, DE/DT, Alabama
This draft is heavy on pass rushing defensive linemen, and Dareus is no exception.
The Cardinals need direction, and in the absence of a difference making quarterback at the top of the draft, they should go defense, and remake their team around that. Dareus will help a sub-par pass rush, and has the versatility to play as a 3-4 DE or as a 4-3 DT.
After his time at Alabama, he's also used to winning, which is an intangible that shouldn't be overlooked.
6) Cleveland Browns: Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
With Green off the board, the Browns will be hard pressed to find an offensive weapon that would fit here, so as much as they'd want to fill that void, and give the promising Colt McCoy some more ammo to work with, I think they'll look instead to shore up their secondary.
Amukamara hasn't been generating the hype of late that some of the other top prospects have, but he's still a solid cover corner who will help the Browns improve their already respectable pass defense into something to be feared.
He didn't put up the pretty numbers that jump out at you in 2010 (0 interceptions), but the intangibles are there, and the team that gets Amukamara's services will be pleasantly surprised.
7) San Francisco 49ers: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
I debated about this pick, but in the end, I took the plunge. I'm sure I'll get flak for this pick, but so be it.
The 49ers need a new quarterback to go with their new regime, and the way things have shaken out, Gabbert is the best one available. He doesn't quite have the blue chip pedigree and track record of an Andrew Luck, but he could succeed in the NFL given the chance.
He's got the size (6'5", 232 lbs.), he's got the arm, and he's got decent mobility. Yes, he's spent the last few years in a shotgun, spread offense that allowed him to play in a way he won't be able to in the pros. He'll have to be molded and coached to change some of his bad habits, but if anyone can do that, it's Jim Harbaugh.
8) Tennessee Titans: Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA
I've moved Ayers pretty far up the board from where I had him a couple of weeks ago, due to other underclassmen staying in school and Ayers' body of work starting to stand out a bit more.
The Titans gave up a ton of yards last season, ranking 26th in the league in that category, and allowed more first downs than anyone else. Ayers is a heady prospect who is strong enough to do battle with linemen, and athletic enough to make plays in the open field.
UCLA sometimes gets overlooked as a football school, but Ayers might serve to change that perception.
9: Dallas Cowboys: Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M
Miller is another linebacker who moves up the list into the top 10.
The Cowboys gave up the second most points and the second most passing touchdowns in the league in 2010, so it stands to reason they'll look to reinforce that part of their team in the draft. They already have an offensive unit that's pretty set.
Miller gets to stay in Texas to do just that. He'll form a fearsome tandem with DeMarcus Ware against opposing QB's, but he can be just as effective dropping back into coverage across the middle against a running back or a tight end.
10) Washington Redskins: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Yes, Washington needs a quarterback as bad as anyone here, but at this point, I just don't think they see their QB of the future coming in this draft. Look for them to try to pull off a trade to hold them over for another season (might the Eagles help them out again this year?)
I previously tabbed Cam Newton to slot in here, but his National Championship performance, while not bad, still gave scouts some questions to chew on about his footwork and decision making in the pocket. The 'Skins could still go in that direction, but if they don't, Ryan Kerrigan might make sense.
Kerrigan is a hard worker who will make his presence felt in any system he finds himself in. He gets into the backfield, and is great at pursuing from the weak side.
11) Houston Texans: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
Smith is an extremely athletic end who could potentially transition into an outside linebacker role in the Texans' 3-4 scheme.
He's come back onto people's radars after falling off a bit due to missing three games and not accumulating the sexy stats as much as he would have otherwise, but his stock could still jump even more once he starts working out for pro teams leading into the combine.
Houston's defense in 2010 was 29th in the league in points allowed, and 30th in yards. Smith with help them turn those numbers around next year.
12) Minnesota Vikings: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Your opinion of Newton is likely at one end of the spectrum or another.
You either think he's going to be the second coming of Ben Roethlisberger, a big, strong, mobile QB who can stand in the pocket or serve as his own fullback, or you think he's going to be the second coming of JaMarcus Russell, an immensely gifted athlete who won't be able to adapt to the pro game.
As for the Vikings, with Brett Favre filing his retirement paperwork, it's time for them to start over. They're a team that can afford to take a chance on someone like Newton. They can give even more of the load to Adrian Peterson at first, and try to let Newton ease himself into the offense.
With their home field situation still up in the air, they just better hope that Cam can handle the bitter Minnesota winters.
13: Detroit Lions: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
Among the Lions many needs (don't they always seem to have many needs?), one of the most pressing has to be the offensive line.
While they only gave up 27 sacks in 2010, which was actually one of the better totals in the league (shocking, I know), if they're still committed to Matthew Stafford, they need to find a way to give him a fighting chance to stay on the field for a full season.
Carimi is 6'7", 327 pounds, and can excel at either tackle spot. Coming from Wisconsin, he'll also give Detroit solid run blocking off the corner. His workout numbers won't wow you, but he works hard, has good positioning, and proved himself more than capable against the best the Big 10 had to offer.
14: St. Louis Rams: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
With Justin Blackmon staying in college, the best wide receiver of this year's draft crop not named A.J. Green is Julio Jones.
And you know that finding someone to throw to who is actually worthy of catching those throws is the first thing on Sam Bradford's offseason wish list. Nothing against them, but when Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson are your top two receivers, you could use some help.
Jones showed his breakout potential in big games down the stretch for the Tide, including the loss against Auburn. He's got star quality.
15) Miami Dolphins: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
I keep both Jones and Ingram right where they were in my last draft, because they still fit.
Miami doesn't really have a quarterback, but that's been true since Dan Marino retired, and none of the remaining guys available warrant a pick this high. Ricky Williams being who he is (that is to say, a free agent who probably won't be back in South Florida after criticizing his coach and teammates), the Dolphins other big hole on offense is potentially at running back.
Ingram stands about the rest of the ballcarriers in the 2011 draft because of his maturity and poise. He's used to playing big games with the Crimson Tide, and he's used to the spotlight that goes along with it. Dare I say he's more mature than Williams has ever been during his Dolphins tenure?
16) Jacksonville Jaguars: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
Quinn belongs higher, I know. I just think that he'll fall a bit over concerns due to his suspension that forced him to miss the 2010 season. Because of the suspension, he fell a bit off of many radars, and he'll inevitably be somewhat rusty.
His talent remains, however, and he won't fall much past the middle of the first round. He probably would've been a top 10 pick without the suspension. At 6'5", 270 pounds, the sneaky fast Quinn gets off the line in a blink, and could fit in the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker.
The Jags had a disappointing end to their 2010 campaign, and their 27th (in terms of points) and 28th (in terms of yards) ranked defense didn't help down the stretch, giving up more than 30 points in three of their last four games. Quinn brings a presence with him that will give Jacksonville back some defensive credibility.
17) New England Patriots (from Oakland): Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
The Patriots had a great year, but one reason they were upset by the Jets is that they gave Mark Sanchez too much time in the pocket, and didn't make enough big defensive plays.
Stephen Paea could help change that. He would energize a defensive line that, while solid, has been unspectacular. He's a hard worker who would fit in well with the tight-ship, no-nonsense Patriots.
In my previous draft, I had him going to the Pats with their second first round selection, but I'm not sure they can wait that long to grab him, so they'll just get it over with here.
18) San Diego Chargers: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
Clayborn has fallen on somewhat hard times for a guy who, going into the season, was projected as a top 10 pick.
He's still got that kind of talent and potential, it's just that a lot of people haven't seen it in a while, leading to questions about his dedication and desire. Character issues aside, though, he would be able to help fill a need for San Diego, in giving them a new pass rusher off the end.
I think the Chargers, who look to potentially have more turnover than a team as talented as them should, would be willing to take a chance that this was just a down year for Clayborn, and he'll be back with a vengeance in 2011.
19) New York Giants: Tyron Smith, OT, USC
Smith makes a bit of a jump in my projection here. I had previously had him going later in the first round, but I think he's leapfrogged some of the other top offensive linemen.
That's basically the primary question for this pick. Most prognosticators have the Giants picking up help for the O-line here, it's just a question of who. More and more recently, I've seen Smith get the nod.
The Giants like his big market exposure and his ability to grow into his athletic frame to be more of a factor in run blocking. The pre-draft workout process should only continue to help his stock.
20) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cameron Jordan, DE, California
We're staying out west in the Pac-10 with the next pick, Cameron Jordan.
Jordan is a talented defensive end in a draft full of them. In a different year, he might go higher, but as deep as this position is in 2011, Tampa will be happy if he's still around for them at number 20.
The 6'4", 280 pound Jordan is equally effective against the run or the pass, and has gotten progressively better throughout his college career. He'll be ready to come in and start right away in Tampa, and should help Tampa, one of the surprise teams in the NFL this past season, continue to get back to winning ways.
21) Kansas City Chiefs: Drake Nevis, DT, LSU
The Chiefs already have Tamba Hali in tow, but another pass rushing lineman couldn't hurt, as Hali now routinely faces double teams. He'd welcome having some of the pressure taken off of him.
At 6'1", Nevis is a bit undersized, but he plays with a chip on his shoulder that more than makes up for it. Besides, one of the basic tenets of playing on an NFL line is "low man wins". Sometimes, height isn't the advantage it's often cracked up to be.
A mature, intense defender, Nevis will help the Chiefs further right the ship in 2011.
22) Indianapolis Colts: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Amazing that this late in the round, I manage to find a pick that stays the same as I predicted it two weeks ago, but this one does.
The Colts, as always, remain a solid team, but one area that can always use help when you're a good team is the offensive line. The Jets pressured Peyton Manning more than he would've liked in their Wild Card upset, so upgrades there are a priority.
Solder is the top offensive tackle on Mel Kiper's big board, and wherever you want to place him in that ranking, he's certainly a first round talent. He's got enormous size, at 6'9", 313 pounds, and is a skilled pass blocker who will fit into the Colts obviously pass heavy attack.
23) Philadelphia Eagles: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami
Harris wavered on whether or not he was going to stay in school. Many around Miami thought he would, but eventually, he decided to throw his name into the hat of the draft.
And it's a good thing for Philadelphia, because other than Asante Samuel (7 interceptions in 11 games in 2010), their pass defense leaves something to be desired. They gave up the fourth most passing touchdowns in the league this past season.
So with their high powered offense in place, they look to upgrade their defensive backfield in 2011. Harris perhaps could've used a bit more seasoning at the college level, but his potential is there, and his sheer athletic ability will allow him to succeed sooner rather than later.
24) New Orleans Saints: Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
The Saints showed in their Wild Card weekend lost to Seattle that they're not infallible.
Yes, their defense was to blame in that game far more than their offense, but if Sherrod is still on the board at this point, they'll be happy to have him. He's a top notch pass blocker who will give Drew Brees plenty of time to pick apart opposing defenses.
He didn't get the lion's share of attention playing at Mississippi State, but he did face the stiff competition of the SEC and more than held his own.
25) Seattle Seahawks: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Watt would be a steal here for the Seahawks if he falls into their lap at number 25. They dropped precipitously in the draft thanks to their final week win that qualified them for the playoffs, and their upset of New Orleans that advanced them to the divisional round. But they could still land a top notch talent.
A pass rusher of his caliber, who can also be a force in stopping the run, usually doesn't last this long. But as I talked about here earlier, this is a deep draft when it comes to defensive linemen and linebackers.
Watt is a relentless worker who is never satisfied with anything but complete success. His presence upgrades the Seattle line tremendously. Who knows? Maybe they actually finish .500 next year?
26) Baltimore Ravens: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
Baltimore is another talented team that doesn't need much to contend right now. So an easy place to look for an upgrade is the offensive line.
Anthony Castonzo is mature and hardened from playing through the bitter Boston winters. Baltimore will seem like a tropical resort to him. He'll give the Ravens' offense a boost, and give Joe Flacco more time to find his trio of talented veteran receiving targets.
Now, if only they could actually catch the ball, maybe Batimore could finally defeat Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
27) Atlanta Falcons: Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh
Roddy White put up tremendous numbers for Atlanta in 2010, but after that, there's not much when it comes to the receiving corps.
With some of the other top college wideouts opting to stay in school, Baldwin squeaks into the first round here at number 27. Especially when you consider Tony Gonzalez's precarious status (even if he returns, he's going to be 36), the Falcons could use more targets for Matt Ryan to throw to. And Packer defensive backs don't count.
Baldwin doesn't have the hype as guys like A.J. Green or Julio Jones, but he quietly put together a strong collegiate career in the Big East, and has the potential to be an upgrade for an Atlanta team that will be hungry to show that it was the playoff upset, and not their regular season success, that was a fluke.
28) New England Patriots: Mike Pouncey, G, Florida
New England is another team, like New Orleans, like Atlanta, that showed that, despite its success, it has some deficiencies it would be wise to address.
Pouncey can help further solidify the Patriots' offensive line. His brother, Maurkice, is already an All-Pro as a rookie in Pittsburgh this year, which should help Mike's draft stock enough to make him a first rounder.
With two first round picks, New England could also choose to trade one or both prior to the draft, but I'm choosing to avoid such potential complications in this forecast.
29) Green Bay Packers: Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame
I'm going off of regular season record for the last four picks, which obviously aren't determined yet and will eventually be based on postseason results.
The Packers already have a solid passing attack, but one of the positions they could get better at in the draft is at tight end. Kyle Rudolph has good hands and has experience in a pro style attack at Notre Dame. He'll be one of Aaron Rodgers' new favorite targets.
30) New York Jets: Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State
Heyward is another late first rounder that somehow manages to keep his slotting.
His stock fell a bit as he looked slow and out of shape for longer than was comfortable for a lot of scouts, but his Bowl play has helped it rebound a bit.
The Jets, despite another surprisingly successful run in the playoffs, could still use more help on their defensive line next year to take that next step from nice upstart to legitimate force. Heyward fills that role, and will excel in coach Rex Ryan's aggressive schemes.
31) Chicago Bears: Rodney Hudson, G, FSU
Alright, Bears fans, you know what you want. You know what you need.
Chicago found success on Sunday against an overmatched Seahawks team, but that doesn't change the fact that they gave up 56 sacks this season, easily the most in the league, and quarterback Jay Cutler needs better protection.
Rodney Hudson is a strong presence in the middle of the offensive line, and has been getting more attention of late. He's a solid pickup at the end of the first round.
32) Pittsburgh Steelers: Clint Boling, G, Georgia
The Steelers will look to do the same thing that a lot of the other top teams will be doing: upgrade their offensive line.
Clint Boling is one of the best remaining available linemen. A big, mobile guard out of the SEC. You can't go wrong there.
Pittsburgh's running game will thank him.