2011 NFL Mock Drafts have increased in legitimacy now that the underclassmen have made their declarations. There are always surprises with who decides to come out but this year the bigger surprises might have been who returned to school.
Top prospect, Andrew Luck will not be in the 2011 NFL Draft. Neither will top five receiver prospects from the Big 12 Justin Blackmon or Ryan Broyles.
The complicated off-season ahead of the NFL didn't scare off many prospects though and the top four consensus draft prospects are all non-seniors.
This year we don't have a hands-down number one pick. If Luck where here, there is no question he would be that guy. Not having one is exciting though because it means we should see more from the elite prospects throughout the draft process as they try to improve their stock.
Many draft experts are down on this year's talent crop. Without sure-fire QBs or elite tackles it makes the first round a bit more of a crapshoot--or at least to the untrained eye. In this environment the teams that scout talent well will win big and the rest will have to wait till next year.
Let me know who you want your team to take and if you have any NFL Draft questions you can ask me on Twitter @JohnLorge.
Nick Fairley was my top pick before the National Championship, before Ron Rivera, and he remains. The Panthers won't be switching to a 3-4 (for now) and after one of the most dominant DT performances in Bowl history, the Panthers have their first front-runner since Andrew Luck.
He isn't quite Suh but Fairley has his own talents. At 6'5", 300, he is about as big as your average offensive linemen but much more athletic. He is efficient with his hands and closes very fast.
The best thing I've seen Fairley do--and it was whether he lined up over the tackle, guard, or center--is crowd the LOS before the snap. He looked a foot closer to the opposing offensive linemen than any of his teammates. This allows him to get inside the OL, where he can control their pads.
A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, and Da'Quan Bowers are all still options but the Panthers are bankrupt at DT and Fairley grades out at the top of the big board.
The Broncos are a team in transition. Their coaching staff is undergoing a massive overhaul, they may be switching defensive schemes, and they could lose two or three of their starting DBs.
Regardless of who is on the team, who is coaching them, and what scheme they are running Patrick Peterson is going to help Denver's situation.
If Perish Cox and Champ Bailey are gone, Peterson will be ready to assume the top spot on the depth chart. His size, athleticism, and ball skills make him comparable to Bailey and Charles Woodson.
I would have liked to see Peterson play some safety at LSU--because it would have involved him in more plays--but corner is a premium position and no one has played it better in recent memory at the NCAA level.
I thought their would be more Cam Newton backlash after the National Championship but their was a surprising amount of positive feedback.
The major criticism was that Newton was sloppy with his feet, which is something that can be refined with practice. His accuracy was also questioned.
There is no doubt Newton has a strong arm. He has a rather compact delivery for a guy his size too.
Many scouts said he is still a better prospect than Vince Young was after the Rose Bowl. Young has such an atypical, yet dominant, way of playing the position that it was hard to in-vision him playing in the NFL. Newton is much more refined, even if he lacks the playing experience.
The Bills need a QB who can take-over the game for them. We know Newton can move the chains with his feet, and Buffalo is one of the teams incorporating spread principals into their gameplan.
There is still a lot of evaluation but right now Cam Newton being a top three pick is a very realistic possibility.
Defensive end isn't the Bengals biggest need but but it is one of many. Da'Quan Bowers opposite of Carlos Dunlap would give Cinci one of the most promising pairs at the position in the NFL.
The Bengals draft pretty closely to a standard big board which is why they have landed big name prospects like Gresham, Dunlap, Shipley, Gee, Andre Smith, Maualuga, Michael Johnson, and Coffman in the first three rounds over the past two years.
Bowers and A.J. Green carry an identical grade but Bowers will give the Bengals much more value.
At 6'4" and 280 pounds (rumored to be closer to 300) Bowers has a similar stature to the late Reggie White. Not built like track stars but just as explosive as speed rushers.
Reports from the Arizona Republic News maintain that Donovan McNabb is not in the team's future plans. That has to mean one of the elite QB prospects is.
There is a lot to like about Blaine "Yo Gabba" Gabbert. He meets all of the size, athleticism, and arm strength requirements anyone might have about a top 10 prospect.
Gabbert has good experience for his age, he will turn 22 next season. He was a two-year starter at Mizzu, throwing for 6,822 yards and 40 touchdowns. He completed 61.2 percent of his passed over that period.
Both Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have Gabbert as the top QB prospect. His ability to fit balls into tight windows on a consistent basis is superior to Ryan Mallet or Cam Newton.
Picking A.J. Green makes sense from every perspective for Cleveland. He's the top offensive prospect with Andrew Luck removed from the draft and the Browns will need receivers as much as anybody.
Many feel Green is actually the top overall prospect in the draft. His 6'4" 210 pound build is coveted in the NFL, he runs professional routes, and attacks the ball.
The Browns have multiple needs on defense that could also be addressed. They need to increase their talent pool at all three levels to compete for an AFC North title.
Green is too talented to pass on at six though, especially because they have a QB plan.
Jim Harbaugh hasn't given any indications about which QBs he does or doesn't like yet. Don't expect the Niners to draft a QB just because they need one. Any of the top four QBs are a realistic option here but there are also suitable options on the trade or free agency market.
The Niners need to continue building out their defense. Drafting two offensive linemen in the first round made sense last year but getting a prospect like Prince Amukamara is a great move in a division for the taking.
Although he was beat a few times on play action this season, Amukamara could be typically found blanketing his man this year. The best way to grade a QB is see how they did against Nebraska's secondary, and the senior corner was a the key reason for their dominance.
The Niners have needed an elite outside rusher for years, they would have their pick of the litter here but the top of the big board is held down by Prince.
If Amukamara were to make it one more pick I think the Titans would jump all-over him.
There have been some statements made about wanting to win now from Tennessee's front office which makes me think a rookie QB isn't in their plans.
The defense still needs development and Tennessee's could have several linebacking holes due to free-agency. Upgrading talent is the best option.
Ayers is a complete linebacker. His size and skills are similar to Brian Cushing. He would give the Titans a pass rushing presence and has the size and ball skills to lock down the pass.
He is a physical presence against the run too.
There aren't any defensive backs or inside linebackers with top 10 value left on the board, and Jerry Jones has never been a needs-first drafter.
Dareus is a perfect fit for a creative coordinator's 3-4 scheme. He can lineup anywhere from center to tackle and get in the backfield.
There are come concerns about Dareus turning it on and off but even top prospect Nick Fairley appeared to lack maximum effort at times against Oregon.
The Cowboys have several linemen hitting free agency. They didn't resign Chris Canty to a big deal and Marcus Spears might have to get paid elsewhere as well.
This season Locker worked himself out of top pick consideration. His inability to consistently play efficient, winning football is a legitimate concern for NFL teams.
With all of the tools and good experience, Locker is still vying for a first round pick, though.
It's been reported for a while that the Skins are very interested in the Washington QB. A strong performance at the Senior Bowl would eliminate any chance of Locker coming back to Washington in the second round.
This really wouldn't be the best option for Washington. They have needs on both sides of the ball, at almost every position, and picking from the top of the big board is what would make them a better club in 2011.
The hardest stock to project of all of the first round locks in Robert Quinn. Scouts and draft experts never moved him down much in their top 10's, despite being suspended for the entire season.
Before the suspension Quinn's background was clear of red flags, so his character shouldn't take a major hit. Being away from the game for an entire year is a major disadvantage though, so teams may have some concerns about how much he can contribute in 2011.
If Quinn impresses at the combine and in individual workouts he could be long gone when Houston hits the board.
The Texans are switching to a 3-4. Quinn would allow Wade Phillips to be very creative with his package. Rushing along-side Mario Williams and Brian Cushing seems impossible to stop for four quarters.
If Houston can sign a big name DB, Quinn could be the difference maker in a playoff run next season.
If the Vikings sign Josh McDaniels as their OC this week it will dramatically increase the chances of them not picking a QB, and instead trading for Kyle Orton.
Currently without a QB though, Minnesota needs to secure a starting caliber one the easiest way possible with Mallett on the board at 12.
He isn't a flawless QB prospect but his positives heavily outweigh his negatives. Mallett has been making NFL throws for the past two seasons and his size is rare. At times he can get congested in the pocket but his presence will continue to develop.
If Minny has other QB plans, a defensive end or tackle would combat their free agency issues on the D-line.
The Lions would love if there is a corner with value here. Trading up or down to get one with a good price tag wouldn't be a bad first round strategy.
Picking at 13 is a good sign for Detroit and if they don't want to trade, the defensive talent on the board is sure to help the team.
The Lions linebackers were hurt by injuries this season and Julian Peterson's production has been declining late in his career.
In a 3-4 there are some question whether Miller has the girth to be an every down OLB but in the 4-3 he has prototypical size for the position.
We all know Miller is an outstanding pass rusher. He has a good nose for the ball against runs or passes and he is fluid in coverage.
It seems too good to be true that Julio Jones would slip to the Rams but in this scenario, with no trades, it's very realistic.
St. Louis had to look far and wide for receivers this year and nobody on their roster is nearly as talented as Jones.
He has the size to abuse one-on-one coverage on jump balls, and like TO he is tough to bring down when he catches balls underneath.
Jones is a top 10 talent, if he's gone you can expect the Rams to take the best defensive player--or Jon Baldwin as a reach.
All three of Miami's interior OL positions are up for grab this off-season and they are no doubt going to have to bring in candidates via the draft.
Mike Pouncey shares knew he wasn't playing at the same level as his brother last year, so he returned to Florida to improve, and now his stock is higher than ever. Maurkice's great rookie season has also helped Mike's stock.
Mike isn't as dominant man on man as Maurkice but he has better quickness and agility.
Teams are realizing that drafting first round caliber interior O-linemen pays off, so Pouncey cracking the top 15 shouldn't be a surprise.
Building the line back up to where it needs to be will help Miami more than drafting a back or QB here.
Currently Rahim Moore's draft status is rather low profile for being the top safety in the 2011 draft class.
At 6'1", 200 pounds he isn't a physical specimen but he has competitive size, and his skills are what really shine through.
Moore has been one of the most natural defensive backs in college football the past few years. He knows his angles, is a willing tackler, and is an absolute ball hawk.
The Jags defensive backfield is horrible. Two years ago they needed OL, check. Last year they wanted to beef-up their defensive line which they did in the draft and free agency.
Some feel the Jags need a QB solution. A mid-to-late QB selection wouldn't be surprising but for a team that was one game out of the playoffs they need to do what it takes to get over the hump.
New England did a good job of forcing turnovers this year but they were very mediocre at getting to the QB.
Ryan Kerrigan has been a total stud for the past two seasons. Purdue isn't known for forcing teams into passing situations which makes Kerrigan's double-digit sacks in back-to-back years that much more impressive.
I like Kerrigan as an OLB in the Pats 3-4. He will be either stuffing the run or rushing the passer on most plays, but he looks like he has skills to cover a back or drop into a zone on occasion.
The Patriots have some serious offensive line decisions to make but with Tom Brady in his prime the team needs to make building a dominant defense a top priority.
Trades are very much in play here for NE as well.
Many scouts, like ESPN's Kevin Weidl, have been enamored with Smith in their post-season film review and he is flying up big boards, passing the other tackle prospects on his way.
Everyone is impressed with his build and athleticism but Smith is no Bruce Campbell prospect. Smith uses that athleticism to deceive defenders when they see an ineligible number heading their way and he known for playing to the whistle.
The Chargers would use Smith on the right side, where he has experience.
A receiver like Jon Baldwin is an option here with Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson becoming free agents but that's a reach. The Chargers also have needs on defense but landing the best tackle at 18 is extremely rare.
Martez Wilson hasn't established himself as a clear-cut first round prospect yet, but he has the talent to and he is a prospect that screams Giants.
Playing inside at Illinois, the 6'4" 250 pound Wilson was a super blue chip defensive end coming out of high school. With his versatility Wilson can bring pressure from the outside or inside. He picks off passes and gets sacks.
We've seen the Giants spend draft picks on similar prospects like Clint Sintim and Mathias Kiwanuka and linebacker is NY's biggest need on defense.
An offensive tackle would make sense here too.
Tampa made a giant leap from third overall pick to playoff contender this past season and they did so by improving their team through the draft.
Although the team was winning, they still surrendered too many rushing yards and they didn't do a good enough job of pressuring QBs either.
The front seven has two tackles but all of the other positions could see change throughout the next two years. Defensive end is a major need and J.J. Watt is positioning himself to be a first round pick.
You don't come across 6'6" 280 pound DEs with this type of motor very often. Watt isn't the best athlete but I am confident he will be competitive at the combine, he is putting in work every day at Athletes Performance preparing for it.
We know the Colts need defensive tackles and there a range of prospects on the board that can fit that need for them but Indy first priority is keeping Peyton Manning safe and their OL struggled this season.
Solder has everything you look for in a potential left tackle. At 6'8" he's bigger than average, he is oozing with intelligence, and the former tight end is one of the more athletic players at his position.
The way this mock is turning out if I were Bill Polian I think I would draft Stephen Paua or Drake Nevis but as we discussed, Polian doesn't always do the obvious.
Thomas Jones failed to hit the 1000 yard mark for the first time in six seasons and he has no one to blame but himself. With 245 carries Jones posted a 3.7 YPC--he is nearing the end of his career and if KC can get a legit thunder back to pair with their lightning they should.
Mark Ingram faded from his spotlight some this season. He entered the season banged up and every team put in extra time preparing for Alabama this year.
A sub 4.5 40 time could land Ingram in the top 20, and anything in that range will show scouts he has the top end speed needed to finish runs in the NFL.
Ingram is a much better receiver than you would expect from a player with his body type.
KC has some serious needs on defense but if they want to keep pounding the rock like they did this season passing on Ingram would be a mistake.
I expect the Eagles to trade this pick if they can find a partner. Without a CBA in place I wouldn't expect the pick to be traded before the draft but Philly will move up to get players they like and move down to avoid just picking.
If Philly is going to make the pick I think they will be looking at backers, corners, and OL.
Eagles scouts have had a better opportunity to keep-up on the talented Benjamin Ijalana than any other team. The Nova tackle earned a lot of attention late in the season and he is now a fringe first rounder.
He would be an instant fix for Philly's right tackle slot.
With the first round caliber linebackers off the board I would anticipate the Saints to draft from the top of the defensive line board.
Cameron Jordan is a full-sized DE prospect (6'4", 280). He is powerful out of his stance and isn't afraid to pull-out finesse moves when needed.
In New Orleans' 4-3 front he can be a three down player opposite Will Smith. Jordan has been getting a lot of love in the 3-4 scheme but he's a great fit int he 4-3 as well.
Although this draft isn't the most loaded in years, it does have very good DL talent so NO should be able to come away with value in the second half of the first round.
I wouldn't be surprised to see the Seahawks make a move for Tyron Smith. Pete Carroll knows what caliber of player he is and the organization seems like lean towards athletic offensive linemen.
With Smith gone, the Seahwaks may turn to their other major need--defensive back. Earl Thomas is holding down the free safety spot but all of the other positions could afford to be upgraded.
Aaron Williams played with Thomas at Texas, and he is a very attractive prospect. Another guy who hasn't yet earned a first round lock, teams want to see just how big and athletic the corner really is.
Defensive line is not the biggest need for Baltimore but it is an area that could be undergoing change over the next few seasons.
Cameron Heyward shares a lot of qualities with Richard Seymour, and his outstanding Sugar Bowl has solidified him as a first round prospect. Ozzie Newsome knows talent and this kid has it.
Brandon Harris, the corner from Miami, is a possibility here with the Hurricane connection but he is carrying a second round grade. Any of the fringe OL are also in play here.
Baltimore likes to make moves on draft day too, so a trade might be their best option.
Once riding high, the Falcons now know they still need to keep building if they want to hoist that Super Bowl crown.
Playmakers on defense, especially at end, would be welcome but their biggest need is a legit number two receiver.
Jonathan Baldwin saw a slight decline in stats from 2009 to 2010 but Pitt was a team in turmoil the past season.
On Atlanta Baldwin would thrive in one-on-one matchups opposite Roddy White. The 6'5" receiver attacks the ball at it's highest point and he is a talented open field runner.
Adrian Clayborn going this late would be one of the biggest slides int he first round. The 6'3", 290 pound end is much more explosive than you might expect and hes girth gives opposing linemen a handful.
I had a hard time not giving the Pats an offensive tackle with this pick but they know talent and Clayborn has it.
One reason Clayborn could slide is because he has multiple red flags on his record. Flags have never scared off the Pats though which is another reason he is a good fit for the team.
New England expected to be picking somewhere in the 30s but they will get their hands on more talent a few slots higher.
If the Bears keep winning in the playoffs it may be tough to get their hands on a first round quality tackle, but the position group still needs to sort itself out with the Senior Bowl and combine.
Anthony Castonzo would fill one of the many holes on the Bear's line. The team has blocked better in the second half of the season but overall they lack talent there.
If defensive tackles slip I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bears act there, unless there is a better OT on the board.
Stephen Paea is another player getting a lot of mixed reviews from scouts. Some like Scouts Inc. think he's a potential top 10 guy where others like Ourlads think hes a fringe first rounders.
No matter what grade Paea ends up with he would be a great pick for the Jets.
The defensive tackle is one of the strongest prospects we've seen in years. He currently plays around 310 but could easily add 20-40 pounds and become your traditional road block nose tackle.
The Jets need depth, and maybe even starters on their OL. They also could use youth at OLB, or anywhere in their front seven--which Paea addresses.
Some have called Gabe Carimi a "right tackle only" prospect which, if that's the case, it could really hurt his stock. Whichever side he's on, I'm running the ball behind him.
The Packers looked smart by drafting a tackle last year when they already had starters on each side heading into the season. Chad Clifton did make the Pro Bowl this year but he will be 35 in June and missed four games last season due to injury.
Picking Carimi would help keep Aaron Rodgers protected and would really help them establish a more consistent rushing attack.
Ziggy Hood was huge for Pittsburgh in their win over Baltimore and continuing to integrate youth into their defensive line will keep the Steelers at the top of the AFC North.
If you watched Illinois in their bowl against Baylor then you saw Corey Liuget. He is an upfield DT who has almost identical size and motor to Hood.
Drake Nevis is a fringe first rounder Pittsburgh could look at but he doesn't have the measurements of a first round DT or 3-4 DE prospect which could hold him back.
The Steelers still need offensive line help but they won't reach on a tackle prospect and they can add guards int he second or third rounds.