Senior Bowl 2011 goes down today, concluding a week of ample opportunities for seniors departing the college football ranks to make their presence known among talent-hungry NFL scouts and evaluators.
The Senior Bowl is the last major pre-draft event before the scouting combine in late February, so the chances for 2011 NFL Draft-eligible players to make an impression are dwindling. Draft stocks can only change so much this late in the process, so it's as good a time as any to speculate on what a number of the teams will be looking for come the April 28th draft.
So with that said, let's take a step back an take some inventory with an NFL Mock Draft. I'll go through all 32 picks, counting down from the Carolina Panthers' first overall pick all the way to the 32nd and final pick of the first round.
What player is moving up in NFL scouts' eyes? Who will be the pick for your favorite NFL team? Click through to find out what my take is on the fast-approaching 2011 NFL Draft. Of course you will no doubt disagree with some of my picks, so be sure to discuss who you think should go where, and what your team's biggest need is on draft day.
The Panthers have a number of needs, and were heavily linked to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as the potential number one pick, meaning they were willing to take another quarterback a year removed from Jimmy Clausen's selection.
But since Luck never declared, the next big area for Carolina to address is along the defensive line, hence my pick of Auburn's dominant defensive tackle Nick Fairley as the number one overall selection.
Carolina lost the intimidating, must-be-accounted-for presence of defensive end Julius Peppers when he signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears before last season. Fairley is a good start at re-establishing a threatening Carolina pass rush.
He has the raw strength and pass rushing abilities that NFL scouts love, and he'll be able to make an immediate impact in Carolina.
John Fox's defenses have historically featured elite, play making defensive ends. Michael Strahan, Julius Peppers...Da'Quan Bowers? Bowers seems like the ideal type of player for Denver to start re-building their struggling defense around. Fox will bring the 4-3 defense with him, so an end like Bowers seems hard to pass up at the number two spot. He is considered an all-around athlete in terms of speed, strength and his ability to get to the quarterback, so I think Denver is happy to take him with the second pick.
It's somewhat surprising to see a cornerback this high up on a draft board, but Patrick Peterson is not a run of the mill corner. Buffalo has decent depth at cornerback right now, but Peterson immediately becomes the team's top defensive back and could also push dynamic running back C.J. Spiller for kick return duties.
Peterson was a key part of LSU's solid defense during the 2010 season, and I think he is who the Bills turn to in order to continue adding big talent to their slowly improving roster. He will be tested by the AFC East's top receivers, but his battles through the tough SEC will serve him well.
Marvin Lewis made his name as a defensive coordinator, and his team's 2009 playoff run was made possible largely due to a strong running game and a strong defensive unit. There isn't a running back on the board that jumps out as a top four pick, so the Bengals can look to their D and try to fill a big hole.
Enter Texas A&M's Von Miller, who could slide in as an outside linebacker and assert himself as an impactful pass rusher right off the bat upon entering the league.
Miller is a player who has seen his stock skyrocket during Senior Bowl week. All the reports from scouts throughout the week had him as one of the stand out performers during practices.
ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted that he was increasingly looking like a top five selection, and with Cincinnati needing to turn around a hugely disappointing 2010 season, Miller looks like the guy.
Arizona struggled badly on offense last year thanks to the gaping hole they've got at the quarterback position. Obviously it's possible they take a passer with this pick, but there isn't a quarterback out there that screams sure-fire franchise guy, nor someone who could step in immediately. Plus the trade and free agent market could potentially be flooded with veteran quarterbacks, and I expect Arizona to pursue someone with experience and NFL success to supplant the ugly Hydra that was the Matt Leinart-Derek Anderson-Max Hall-John Skelton quarterback monster from a year ago.
That means I think Arizona looks to the defense, and specifically looks to improve their disappointing pass rush by adding North Carolina Tar Heel Robert Quinn.
Quinn was considered one of the most talented players in the country heading into the season, but was suspended for the entire 2010 campaign due to an NCAA violation. His stock is a bit down because of this, but I think his talent remains top five worthy and the Cardinals pick him here.
The Browns are building an offense, as they got an impressive 2010 season from rookie quarterback Colt McCoy after he was pressed into action thanks to injuries above him on the quarterback depth chart. Cleveland also stole running back Peyton Hillis from the hapless Josh McDaniels and rode his powerful running to a breakout season. The missing piece on offense? A big, go-to wide receiver, and that's why I think Cleveland takes Georgia's supremely talented A.J. Green at number six.
Green's pedigree is unquestioned by NFL scouts. Some view him as an immediate number one receiver, someone who could approach the league's top wide outs in short order as a pass catcher. Cleveland definitely has a need at receiver, and if Green is there, I think the Browns jump at the chance to select him.
The new San Francisco regime has a lot of holes to fill, probably the highest-profile being the quarterback position. But I don't see them reaching for a passer like Missouri's Blaine Gabbert or Washington's Jake Locker, as I don't see coach Jim Harbaugh putting all his chips behind a young quarterback. I expect San Francisco to be one of the many teams to bring in a proven vet to run the offense.
As a result, I think the Niners look to get more talented and younger at corner. Nate Clements is getting up there, and I think the ideal complement to the veteran cornerback is Nebraska's Prince Amukamara. In most years, Amukamara would be the first cornerback taken, but this is the rare season when he and LSU's Patrick Peterson are two extremely talented defensive backs both eligible for the draft.
I think Amukamara immediately improves the San Francisco passing defense, and I think they look for offensive additions in later rounds.
Tennessee will have a new coach and a new quarterback, and they also could do well to take the physical presence of Alabama's defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Tennessee hasn't gotten a ton of production out of the defensive tackle spot in recent years, and Dareus would be a boost for the Titans' defensive line, one of the team's building blocks in their glory years under the now-departed Jeff Fisher.
Dareus is the best talent available at this point at number eight, given my other picks through the first seven teams. He also fills a need for Tennessee, who should view Dareus as an upgrade to their line.
The Cowboys have a lot of holes they'll need to fill this offseason, and one glaring area to address is along their defensive line. They have Jay Ratliff and probably Stephen Bowen in place for next season, and California's Cameron Jordan is the ideal complement to fill out the 3-4 defensive line.
Jordan is an unbelievable pass rusher, and is another player who has seen his stock go up thanks to dominant Senior Bowl practices throughout this week. He was constantly in the back field, blowing by other highly-regarded offensive line prospects and getting to quarterbacks seemingly at will. His season at Cal was a good one, recording 5.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss.
Jerry Jones likes surprising people on draft day, so it is entirely possible he trades this pick or plucks another player from relative obscurity at number nine. But I think Jordan helps immediately improve the Cowboys' defense in 2011.
The Donovan McNabb experiment failed horribly in D.C., so I expect Redskins' string-puller Mike Shanahan to jettison McNabb and pluck Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert at number ten. Gabbert is considered the best quarterback prospect in the Andrew Luck-free draft, and Washington is one of a few teams needing a reboot at the position.
Knowing that Daniel Snyder is a big name-loving and potentially meddlesome owner, it's possible that he forces another veteran on the Shanahan boys' roster. But I think Gabbert is a talent that Washington will try to build around, even if it means struggling through another down season in 2011.
Make it two Missouri Tigers in a row, as I think the Houston Texans pick the talented defender Aldon Smith. Smith is somewhat raw but is considered to have unbelievable athletic upside, something that NFL teams love when selecting defensive players.
Houston also happens to be transitioning to the 3-4 defense now that they've brought in the much-maligned Wade Phillips to run their defense. They've got Mario Williams and Antonio Smith at defensive end, but they'll need to find another outside linebacker to rush the passer, and I think Smith meets the profile of what Houston will need to succeed.
Minnesota has been linked with quarterbacks like Jake Locker or Cam Newton, but I think they are another team that will go the veteran route in order to fill that position in 2011. I think Locker's stock will tumble by the time draft day comes around, even though he was considered the number one pick heading into the 2010 draft before deciding to return to Washington (with ugly results).
Minnesota will need to protect whomever they bring in under center, and Colorado's Nate Solder is considered the best offensive lineman on the board. He is built well for a potential NFL tackle, standing 6-8 and 315 pounds. He's somewhat raw in terms of technique, but his reviews at the Senior Bowl practices have been solid (despite struggling in the actual game somewhat).
I think Minnesota takes him with an eye on him being the future left tackle, sliding Mount McKinnie to right tackle.
Linebacker Julian Peterson is going to be released by the Lions once the Super Bowl ends, as has been announced by general manager Martin Mayhew. As a result, Detroit will need to fill a hole at linebacker, and UCLA's Akeem Ayers is the best pure linebacker to choose from at this point in the draft.
Detroit also needs defensive secondary help, desperately, but I think they look to fill that void a bit in the later rounds. Ayers is considered a versatile player who could slot in in numerous schemes, thanks to his extreme athleticism. I think he's the right fit for the Lions in lieu of their ability to fill their need in the secondary with this pick. Perhaps Detroit trades down into the later part of the first round with a team looking to take a quarterback like Cam Newton or Jake Locker?
Julio Jones had a bit of a down year with Alabama last year, thanks in large part to playing hurt. But that may be viewed as a positive even, considering he gutted it out and made it onto the field week in and week out despite not being 100% healthy.
Regardless, his talent fills a huge need for the St. Louis Rams. Quarterback Sam Bradford showed great glimpses of future NFL stardom during his rookie year, but he desperately needs talent around him at wide receiver.
Jones is a very talented pass catcher that just needs to iron out inconsistency in his game. But once he's got the ball in his hands, he can make special things happen, and I see no way the Rams pass up the chance to add him to the fold on offense.
Cam Newton didn't end his year on the best possible foot, as his game against Oregon in the BCS National Championship was less than spectacular. But he is still considered an athletically gifted play maker who has the potential to be a starter in the NFL, and therefore I think the Miami Dolphins take the plunge and grab the headlines by taking the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
Miami had no success with Chad Henne, Chad Pennington or Tyler Thigpen at quarterback last season, so they desperately need an upgrade. Perhaps they have a veteran in place for one season to tutor Newton and hold the fort down until he's ready to start, but to me Newton's talent fits with the Dolphins' style. He could see the field as a rookie in the Wildcat from day one, even if he isn't taking all the snaps in 2011.
Jacksonville still has David Garrard, but the veteran quarterback has only so many miles left. The Jaguars have needs on the defensive side of the ball, but I think they snap up a talent like Locker that has seen his standing on NFL Draft boards drop quite a bit in recent weeks.
He's had less than stellar showings during the week leading up to the Senior Bowl, and is now considered likely the third or perhaps fourth quarterback to come off the board on draft day. But the Jaguars need a player to groom as the future of the offense, and Locker could be the guy.
J.J. Watt seems like a Bill Belichick type player, thanks in large part to his versatility. He can play inside or out along the defensive line without being over matched, and I think New England will look to once again shore up its defense by selecting the Wisconsin defensive lineman.
He needs to refine his technique, but what better system to enter than New England's? He has the physical skills and plays with the type of determination that will win over the New England staff, and he seems like he would be a solid addition to the Patriots' defensive line.
Defensive end Jacques Cesaire is a free agent, and I think San Diego can afford to let him walk if they've got the opportunity to select Purdue's stand out defensive end Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan enjoyed a phenomenal season for the Boilermakers, as he put together a whopping 13 sacks, 26 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles.
Those numbers are impressive, and Kerrigan was also a force to be reckoned with this week during Senior Bowl practices. He apparently beat offensive lineman Nate Solder (who I had taken number 12 in this mock) on numerous plays in practice, displaying his uncanny ability to get around offensive linemen.
I think Kerrigan has all the tools to become an effective pass rusher in the NFL, and the Chargers will grab him while they can at number 18.
The New York Giants have an older offensive line, counting on the likes of veterans Kareem McKenzie, David Diehl, Rich Seubert and Shaun O'Hara to anchor the backbone of their offense.
They brought in Will Beatty via the draft in 2009, but they still need to inject some highly talented and solid youth along the offensive line, particularly at the tackle positions.
That's what makes me think Mississippi State's right tackle Derek Sherrod will be the player the Giants go for at number 19. McKenzie is getting up there and his play has been spotty at times for the Giants, and this seems like the prime opportunity to draft and groom his eventual replacement. Sherrod was steady all year long for a much-improved MSU team, and was impressive during practices leading up to the Senior Bowl.
Adrian Clayborn was seen as an extreme talent, potentially a top 10 pick heading into this season. He was ensnared in personal conduct issues throughout the year, and his production on the field also slipped, and as a result he has tumbled down draft boards.
But the potential is there for a strong defensive end at the professional level, and I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gamble on Clayborn's upside and select him at number 20. Tampa Bay needs someone to plop onto their defensive line next to Gerald McCoy in order to form more of a cohesive and consistent pass rush.
Clayborn will need to do some image reparation, but he certainly has the talent to help the steadily improving Buccaneers.
Kansas City had one pass rusher that did all the heavy lifting for their defense, the elite Tamba Hali. If the Chiefs' defense is going to continue to have success against opposing offenses, they will have to add another player capable of getting into the back field and disrupting plays.
That player could be Georgia's Justin Houston. As a junior Houston recorded 11 sacks, impressive production for a less than spectacular Georgia defense. He seems like the type of talent that would surely complement Hali, giving offensive coordinators fits as they try to protect their quarterbacks from a constant two-pronged Chiefs assault.
If you're going to give all-time great quarterback Peyton Manning the mega-contract that the Colts are rumored to be offering him, then you need to be sure that your offensive line can protect that investment.
In 2010, the Indianapolis offensive front struggled in a number of games to keep Manning free of harm and give him enough time to make his usually rapid-fire reads in the pocket.
So if Indianapolis wants to keep Peyton consistently upright, they'll need to add some talent to their line. One player increasing his draft stock of late has been USC's Tyron Smith, and I think that's the Colts selection at 22.
Smith is a bit undersized, as he is reported to weigh 290 pounds, but he's got room to grow, and has the skills to shut down NFL pass rushers. He faced quality competition in the Pac 10 this year in terms of strong defenses, and held up very well. So I look for the Colts to add a building block to their offensive line by selecting Smith.
The Eagles' offensive line fell into a tattered state late in the season, as Michael Vick got little protection and took quite a beating from opposing defenses. If the Philadelphia offense is to perform up to its elite talent levels, they'll need the men in the trenches to be fortified. One sure fire way to do so for Philadelphia is to add Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi.
Carimi played left tackle for most of his career at Wisconsin, but he projects more as a right tackle in the NFL, according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. Mayock was quoted as saying that Carimi "Could play left, but he's probably more of a right tackle. He's a little bit like a Jon Runyan; he's got a little bit of nasty to him."
Runyan was highly successful for many years in Philadelphia, and it seems hard to imagine Andy Reid passing up the chance to finally replace Winston Justice and solidify his offensive line with a player like Carimi.
Stephen Paea hurt his knee during Senior Bowl week, suffering torn meniscus in his right knee. That's a tough injury and it puts his status for the combine in late February in severe jeopardy, so this pick may be a reach given his injury.
But I'm going on both talent level and the team's need, and Paea's ability as a defensive tackle exactly matches what the New Orleans Saints are looking for on draft day. They need help on their defensive line, and Paea enjoyed a stellar season for Oregon State as he was constantly in the back field harassing running backs an quarterbacks alike.
Questions of his health will no doubt dog the talented defensive tackle, but I think it's possible he recovers enough to convince teams in workouts that he'll be ready to go in 2011. And all the tape of his success at Oregon State isn't being erased, so I think he still lands in the late first round, specifically with New Orleans.
It's been a two year drought for the Miami Hurricanes in terms of producing first round picks in the NFL Draft. They had their record 14 year streak of having a first rounder broken in 2009, but I think they start a new streak in 2011, specifically thanks to corner back Brandon Harris.
Seattle took a safety in last year's draft in the supremely talented Earl Thomas, but they still need help at cornerback. Harris is a very solid cover corner who was responsible for 10 broken up passes in his final season at Miami, as well as one interception.
He needs some work, as he didn't have a great game against Notre Dame's Michael Floyd in the Sun Bowl, but he is a top 25 talent who can help Seattle's coverage game immensely.
Baltimore had an ugly situation develop at wide receiver this year despite bringing in the talented and well-known pass catchers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
In the end, quarterback Joe Flacco was left to mostly rely on tight end Todd Heap in the passing game, as Boldin and Housh were both highly inconsistent and oftentimes ineffective.
So Baltimore will take their third crack at solving their issues at wide receiver, this time by drafting the physically gifted but somewhat inconsistent Jonathan Baldwin of the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Baldwin struggled in 2010 but he is 6-5 and built to be a big target for an NFL team needing receiver help. Flacco could use somewhat of a security blanket in the passing game, and it's possible Baldwin develops into that thanks to his size and skill.
Atlanta needs to get quarterback Matt Ryan some help in their passing game. Yes Roddy White is an unbelievable weapon at wide receiver, but Tony Gonzalez seems to be slowing down at tight end, and there is a hole on the depth chart behind White.
Maryland's Torrey Smith made his mark for much of his college career as a kick returner. But in 2010, he broke out in the passing game, catching 65 passes and going for over 1,000 yards receiving. He is extremely quick and explosive once the ball is in his hands.
Atlanta has a quarterback that can get the ball to him, and he seems like a good fit for the Atlanta offense. His ability to contribute on special teams is also an added bonus for Smith's draft stock.
The New England offensive line looked to be a bit leaky late in the season, especially when they were exposed by the New York Jets in the playoffs. Logan Mankins is likely to depart due to his lengthy contract dispute with the franchise that led to his holding out of the first half of the season, so New England could use a little help to protect their MVP Tom Brady.
Why not go with the local product in Boston College's offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo? Castonzo started on the Boston College offensive line since his freshman year. He was also a Rhodes Scholarship candidate, meaning he'll be able to pick up the nuances of the NFL offense somewhat easier than others might.
His knocks are his weight, he was a tight end at one time and is thinner than most offensive linemen. But his asset is his speed and agility, so out on the edge he may make for an ideal blocking tackle. New England could use his mix of smarts, talent and size.
His brother Maurkice was a major part of the Pittsburgh Steelers' drive to the Super Bowl, and now it's Mike Pouncey's turn to make an impact in the NFL. And the team most desperate for his services: the Chicago Bears, who saw their offensive line more resemble an E-Z Pass lane rather than a blocking unit.
Pouncey has the right pedigree and is versatile enough to fill in anywhere on the interior of the offensive line. The Bears desperately need help on the line, so Pouncey seems like the right guy for Chicago to take.
The Jets' pass rush is one area where the team makes its mark on opposing offenses, and it never seems like a bad idea to add talent to the unit. This offseason, though, they may be faced with the potential departure of veteran rusher Shaun Ellis, who is a free agent.
Ellis could be looking for a bigger payday than the Jets would want to afford a 34 year old veteran, but either way, depth along their defensive line seems like the direction they'll go on draft day.
Illinois' Corey Liuget fits the bill for a Rex Ryan player, as he's versatile enough to line up at nose tackle or, more likely, at either defensive end spot. He had 12 and a half tackles for a loss during the 2010 season, so he's got an affinity for breaking up plays in the back field, something that the Jets covet.
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner is said to be revving up his conditioning ahead of the scouting combine in February, and I think it gets him into the fold for the Green Bay Packers at the end of the first round.
Questions abound about Ingram's speed and ability to make plays at the next level, but he has the elusiveness combined with a power-runner approach that makes him an enticing candidate to add to the unsettled Green Bay running back depth chart.
Leshoure will make it two running backs in a row to close out the first round. Rashard Mendenhall carries quite a load for the Steelers, and given the nature of the NFL and its two running back proclivities that have developed across the league, I think Pittsburgh looks to boost their depth at running back.
The Steelers rely on a strong running game and having insurance and a potential change of pace rusher compared to Mendenhall will do Pittsburgh wonders on offense. Mwelde Moore is not an adequate backup runner, so Leshoure could have a nice affect on the Pittsburgh offense.