With the CBA looming over the NFL, coaches, staff and administrators are focusing more than ever on this year's NFL Draft. There are a myriad of factors that could affect the way teams draft, including the potential for a rookie wage scale, free agency structure, and the salary cap.
That being said, every team has needs and every team will try to fill them. The combine in Indianapolis is right around the corner and rankings will certainly change. For now though, the famous "if 'event X' were to happen today' approach is what we'll go on.
The Panthers were the worst team in football by a mile last year and losing out on the chance to draft Andrew Luck was a huge blow. New head coach Ron Rivera says he will keep the 43 defense and having a defensive tackle who can penetrate and dominate the way Fairley can would be a tremendous asset.
Carolina ranked 23rd in the league against the run last year and while Charles Johnson came into his own last year with 11.5 sacks, having to account for Fairley inside should make Johnson even more effective.
Da'Quan Bowers will also draw serious consideration and will blow people away at the combine. Unlike other years, we may not know until the very last minute who the pick will be because Carolina won't start contract negotiations without a CBA in place.
The Denver Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, will have a tough decision to make between Bowers of Clemson and stud corner Patrick Peterson from LSU.
Champ Bailey is a free agent (assuming such a thing exists) this spring, and at 32 is not longer a shut-down corner. Peterson, on the other hand, might be the best athlete in the Draft at 6-1 211 with outstanding quickness, fluidity and ball-skills.
With Elvis Dumervil coming off an injury and presumed healthy, getting the corner position addressed makes more sense than taking Bowers, but matching those two on the edge would gives Matt Cassell and Phillip Rivers nightmares.
Buffalo has spent the last decade and a half trying to find a replacement for Bruce Smith. Smith is one of the best 5 defensive ends of all time so matching his production is unlikely, but the Bills haven't even come close, spending a number of high round selections on pass-rushers without much luck.
Bowers has a chance to change all of that. He was the #1 recruited player out of high school and his production this season matched the hype, notching 15.5 sacks and was actually second on the team in tackles with 63, a rare feat for a defensive end.
At 6-4 280, he is not an ideal fit the Bills 3-4 scheme, but he is an extremely fluid athlete and a tremendous pass-rusher. He has a chance to immediately step in and make life tough on guys like Brady and Sanchez.
The Bengals could get seriously lucky in April when A.J. Green falls into their lap for two reasons. The first is that none of the other players available really match a need for the Bengals. Alabama's Marcell Dareus won't be a marked improvement over the 5 technique ends the Bengals already have, and the Cinci corners are solid making Prince Amukamara from Nebraska a lower value.
That being said, A.J. Green is the last elite prospect in the draft, and with Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson (or is it still Ochocinco) both seemingly on their way out of Cincinnati, the Bengals are in desperate need of a true top-flight receiver.
Green is all that and more as he's improved his route-running, possesses outstanding leaping ability and tremendous hands. You also have to like that his team's biggest game of the year against Auburn was also Green's biggest day when he had 9 catches for 164 yards, 2 touchdowns and was seemingly unguardable.
Quarterback is the top priority for the Cardinals, but after consulting franchise player Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals seem more interested in acquiring one via trade or free agency than drafting someone like Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert in this spot.
Tar Heel DE Robert Quinn is a freak athlete at 6-5 270 and had 11 sacks as a sophomore. He uses his quickness to get into the backfield but has the size and strength to take on bigger defenders.
Arizona doesn't have an outside linebacker opposing teams need to plan for and that makes their secondary vulnerable. In the West, the Cards are just a few impact players away from being right back in the hunt for the division and Quinn has as much upside as any player in the draft.
The big question mark for Quinn is how much his stock will be hurt after he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for receiving gifts. My guess is after he blows people away at work-outs he makes his way back into the top 10 (if he ever left).
Cleveland will have a number of suitable options sitting at #6 with plenty of needs to fill. When in doubt, go with the best player available and that's Alabama's Marcell Dareus.
Dareus was the MVP of the National Championship game as a sophomore and has had his best games on the biggest stages for Alabama over his time in Tuscaloosa. He's capable of playing tackle in 43 fronts, but would be a great fit as an end in 34 fronts as well.
The junior has good explosiveness off the ball for a player his size, and can get penetration while maintaining gap integrity. Dareus has been widely considered the best player on a Nick Saban defense loaded with talent over the past few years.
Meanwhile, Cleveland is in desperate need of some defensive play-makers, although Joe Haden had a solid rookie season.
Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara or Texas A&M OLB Von Miller could be options here as well and would both fill needs.
How do you think 49er fans felt watching their local boy Aaron Rodgers win the Super Bowl MVP, knowing he could have and obviously should have been drafted by their team back in 2005?
Unfortunately once Andrew Luck decided to return to school all those dream scenarios of the 49ers under new coach (and former Stanford coach) Jim Harbaugh trading up to nab his former QB went out the window.
That being said, San Francisco still desperately needs to get the quarterback position solidified, but early word out of the Bay area is that Harbaugh would prefer to get a veteran.
After wowing scouts at the Senior Bowl, it wouldn't shock me if Miller were off the board at seven when the 49ers picks. All Miller has done is amass 27.5 sacks over the past two season, leading the nation in 2009 with 17. He played the rush linebacker spot in the 34 in college, which should make it an easy transition to the same spot in the NFL where he is explosive off the edge.
Nate Clements has been a huge bust after signing an equally huge deal as a free agent and Amukamara could also make sense here.
Gabbert is one of the hottest names in this year's draft and could have been the #1 overall pick in 2012 if he had stayed at Missouri.
He has the arm to make every throw, and the athleticism to escape the pocket to make plays. Spread offense quarterbacks can be a gamble because quarterbacks rely on coaches to make checks at the line and read defenses. Plus, the QB reads are often simple and made from the shotgun formation.
A former top recruit out of high school, Gabbert is big, strong, and just looks like an NFL quarterback. He will be impressive in work-outs and interviews and will likely be a top 10 pick as the bigest player at the most important position in the league.
Questions remain about his ability to handle pressure and make reads, but at Tennessee he'll have the luxury to do something that few quarterbacks in the league have: being able to hand the ball to Chris Johnson.
Amukamara's name will again come up as a possibility to try and deal with the high-powered offenses in the AFC South, as will Gabbert's college teammate OLB Aldon Smith to provide some pass rush.
This year's cornerback group is as talented as we've seen in the last few years with guys like Peterson and Amukamara at the top. If the Cowboys are able to snag Amukamara at this spot it would be an absolute steal.
Terrance Newman is one of the more overrated players in the league and Mike Jenkins has fallen off the map. In the NFC East with Eli Manning and Mike Vick, the Cowboys have a solid pass rush but no one to cover.
Amukamara is built like a safety, but has the athletic ability of a corner. He is physical and instinctive and while he may not be quite as explosive as Peterson, Amukamara plays a more cerebral game and is physical in the running game.
There are questions about his speed, but a sub 4.5 40 at the combine will solidify Amukamara as a top-10 player in this class.
Cam Newton might be the most polarizing player in this year's draft. The mammoth Auburn signal caller dominated the best conference in the college football and won a National Championship.
He's the most dynamic talent at the position since Vince Young, but a recruitment scandal and his controversial departure from Florida have some questioning Newton's character.
What is undeniable is Redskins Owner Daniel's Snyder's desire to make a splash every offseason. The Redskins have toiled in obscurity, at least from a success standpoint, for the better part of the last two decades and Cam Newton could energize this team and fanbase.
Newton will run a sub 4.6 at the combine and is as truck to try and bring down. No question he is a better runner than passer at this point, but unlike a guy like Tim Tebow, Newton has solid mechanics and flashes the ability to be deadly accurate, particularly throwing deep.
This is a reach for the 'Skins, but the need is undeniable and players like Alabama WR Julio Jones or Colorado OT Nate Solder don't have the same kind of value here as a potential franchise QB.
In 2010, the Texans had the worst secondary in the NFL, maybe one of the worst ever. First round pick Kareem Jackson was no help as Houston couldn't stop anyone.
Wade Phillips made the move across the state to run the Texan defense which will reportedly switch to Phillips' 3-4 front. To play with four linebackers, Houston will have to grab a couple more and adding pass rush will ease the burden on the weak secondary.
Aldon Smith has had a meteoric rise up draft boards as team continue to break down his game on film. Just a redshirt sophomore, Smith had 11.5 sacks in just his first season as a starter in '09 and battled a broken fibula this past season on his way to just 5.5 sacks.
He will need some polish, but had Smith gone back to school he could have been a top five pick next year with elite tools to become a dominant edge rusher.
Unfortunately for Houston, there really isn't a value here to take any defensive back, so the best defensive player available will have to do.
Vince Young's name has been connected to Minnesota quite a big since his exile from Tennessee and getting a veteran quarterback would relieve the Vikings from having to reach for Jake Locker or Ryan Mallet in this spot.
The offensive line, once a strength for the Vikes, was inconsistent last season, particularly in pass protection - although the pass rushers in the NFC North are pretty fierce.
Nate Solder is the consensus top lineman in this year's draft and is absolutely massive at 6-8 314, but extremely agile having began his career at tight end. Regardless of who is playing QB in Minneapolis, Solder could be the guy to protect his blindside for the next decade.
If Chad Greenway leaves via free agency, UCLA OLB Akeem Ayers would also be a good fit in this spot, but Solder certainly carries a higher rating and would be a better value here.
It seems at some point in every draft there is a run on offensive lineman and it could start here where Detroit picks outside of the top 10 for the first time in what seems like forever.
In fact, Lion fans may not have to wait long before they start challenging teams like the Packers and Bears for supremacy in the NFC North.
For as good as the Lions defensive line was with rookie phenom Ndamukong Suh, the offensive line has been bad. Tyron Smith is one of those underclassman who shoots up draft boards once he declares.
The 'SC junior has outstanding balance and is a terrific pass-blocker. If you were building a prototype for an NFL left tackle he would look a lot like this kid.
BC's Anthony Costanzo may be a little more polished, but Smith's upside is considerably higher.
Another option may be Akeem Ayers who would make that Detroit front seven pretty scary.
There may not be a better marriage of need and value than St. Louis at 14. If Jones truly does fall this far, the Rams should be the favorite to win the West next season.
A highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, Jones has drawn comparisons to Michael Irvin for his combination of size, strength, and explosiveness.
He was not the focal point of a run-first Alabama offense, but still worked to improve his skills and has become a fluid route-runner.
If Jones is on the board, there's no other pick for the Rams.
For the Dolphins, needs could look very different once the Collective Bargaining Agreement is worked out and free agency is shaped. The Dolphins could be looking at losing both Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, which would make Mark Ingram a need pick here.
However, even with Ingram the Dolphins offensive line is mediocre at best outside of Jake Long.
Castonzo is a mountain of a man at 6-7 305 and with Long at left tackle, the former tight end is not ideally suited for the right side, but has a big enough frame (hello, the guy is 6-7) to add strength and eventually be more than stout at the point of attack.
Someone like Akeem Ayers could be good value here as well.
By far Jacksonville's biggest two needs are at the wide receiver and defensive end positions. They've been burned by high draft pick busts at both positions and there isn't a glut of talent here from which they can choose.
Linebacker is a place the Jaguars could use a dynamic player and Ayers is athletic enough to be a 43 or 34 outside linebacker.
In Jacksonville, Ayers could be utilized as a stand-up linebacker on early downs in their 4-3 and then on third downs as a rush end with his hand down. Ayers is athletic, but not as instinctive as scouts would like as he often relies too much on his athletic ability.
Jack Del Rio is a former linebacker and could be the perfect coach to maximize Ayers' talents.
If the draft shakes out this way, Bill Belichick will have his choice between two players who could walk in and be immediate upgrades defensively while fitting the style Belichick wants to play.
While J.J. Watt would be a great git in the Patriots 3-4 defense, one of the biggest flaws in the Patriots last season was their inability to pressure the opposing quarterback.
Enter Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, who spends his time in opponent backfields, wracking up 26 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and forced five fumbles in 2010. He is not an flashy athlete, but has solid technique and flies around the field every play.
Perhaps no team was a bigger disappointment last season than the San Diego Chargers. Their special teams was all-time terrible, the offense was streaky, and the defense was leaky.
Suddenly, what was one of the most talented teams in the NFL looks like it has plenty of holes, especially on defense. J.J. Watt could certainly be an upgrade at end for the Bolts who have not been the same defense since Shawne Merriman and Jamal Williams left.
Watt is big enough to play the 5 technique in the 34 against the run and does an excellent job getting his hands up, something he will have to do more of as he will be asked to play his gap more than the penetrating style he played at Wisconsin.
A right tackle like Watt's teammate Gabe Carimi would also make sense here.
Eli Manning was blamed for many of the mistakes and key losses last season, but one of the major problems the Giants had was giving Manning time to make throws. Injuries and inconsistent play marred the success of an offense that was unstoppable at times.
Game Carimi is just another in a long line of talented Wisconsin offensive lineman. He is a better pass blocker than people think, and held his own against some of the best defensive ends in the country in the Big 10 last season.
He fits best at right tackle where the Giants have an aging Kareem McKenzie and Carimi would be an upgrade in the running game immediately.
Tampa Bay has made no secret about the fact that they want an upgrade at defensive end. The Bucs landed Gerald McCoy last season who played well before getting injured. Pairing him with a talent at end would be key for a team having to play Matt Ryan and Drew Brees twice a year.
Adrian Clayborn was once considered a top 10 pick, but a disappointing season has him dropping. Clayborn faced double-teams all season at Iowa, and because he's not an elite athlete, he struggled at times.
Clayborn may not be an explosive edge rusher in terms of quickness and burst off the line, but he still can be a solid pass rusher because he is so strong with his initial punch. That allows him to create separation, shed blockers and get after the quarterback or running back.
The Chiefs made a surprising run to the playoffs in 2010, but if they want to get back in 2011 they have some holes to fill. Unfortunately, it's probably too early to get the second receiver they desperately need at this spot.
Watching the Ravens game it became obvious the Chiefs need an upgrade along their offensive front because they absolutely couldn't handle Suggs, Lewis and Co. (although who can?).
Sherrod is a work in progress as a run blocker and doesn't use great technique. However, he is a solid pass-blocker and a very intelligent player ( he also had a 3.54 at Mississippi State), able to recognize blitzes.
A corner like Colorado's Jimmy Smith or Miami's Brandon Harris could make sense here as well.
Indy was decimated last season by injuries at their skill position, but there are still places where even their starters aren't all that talented.
That starts along the defensive interior, where the Colts are weak, finishing 25th in the NFL against the rush. In a division with Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Arian Foster (might be the top 3 picks in your fantasy draft next season), that may be somewhat understandable, but also means the Colts must improve.
Cameron Jordan has been moving up draft boards despite not putting up gaudy stats at Cal. Usually you think of elite defensive end-type prospects you look for tackles for loss and sacks, but Jordan played a true 34 at Cal and was an end where he was asked to be assignment sure.
Jordan would play inside in the Colts 43 front, but is incredibly strong for his size (6-4 287) and will hold up inside against NFL guards.
If Sherrod or Carimi fell here it would be tempting for the Colts as well.
In the Wildcard Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers the Eagles got absolutely steamrolled by a rookie running back who hadn't played football in two years.
The offensive line around Mike Vick is in disarray, but there is no value for an offensive lineman here and Heyward could be a Day 1 starter in Philly.
Heyward could play at end on early downs and slide inside on passing downs to give the Eagles an impact player against both the pass and the run much like the Giants utilized Justin Tuck.
The Eagles could certainly use another corner as well so don't be surprised to see someone like Jimmy Smith or Brandon Harris.
After the combine in a few weeks, this will probably be too low for Houston who is a stud off the corner. There are times when he would be by offensive tackles (In the SEC too, these guys aren't slouches) before they even got out of their stance.
New Orleans relies heavily on generating pressure in blitz packages and creative schemes, and Houston could play end or linebacker depending on the package.
Moving Will Smith, one of the more underrated defensive lineman in the NFL, to the left side and putting Houston on the right off the edge would be tough to handle for opposing offenses.
If Jordan or Heyward fell to the Saints here they wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger either.
This almost makes too much sense to actually happen. Seattle needs a quarterback, Locker is an elite talent. Seattle needs a franchise player, Locker plays QB and is a local product.
Pete Carroll's team has bigger holes, but getting Locker, a player with #1 overall buzz to start the season, at 25 would be a steal and the Seahawks proved they can compete in the West with the roster they already have.
Locker didn't play up to his ability at UW, but remains supremely tooled. He has the arm to make all the throws, solid mechanics, and is a threat to run. Getting him some help at the skill positions in the later rounds or free agency would mean Carroll could give Charlie Whitehurst the reins early, and bring Locker along behind him.
Depending on who you talk to, Jimmy Smith could be anywhere from the top 10 to a borderline first round pick. A strong showing in pre-draft workouts could make Smith more the former than the latter, but whether it's Smith or Miami (FL) product Brandon Harris, corner seems like the play here.
The Ravens don't have a corner they can match up with opposing team's top receiver and feel confident. Baltimore masks the problem with a ferocious pass rush, but against teams who can protect, the Ravens are in trouble.
Smith is a Baltimore-type player with a physical game and a swagger. He isn't a ball hawk, but that's mostly because teams know better than to throw at him. The All Big-12 corner has played well against top competition like A.J. Green and Justin Blackmon.
In-state product Torrey Smith would make sense here too since the Ravens have no vertical threat, but if Smith falls he is too good to pass up here.
The Falcons aren't as good as their 13-3 record indicates, but aren't as bad as their 48-21 torching at the hands of the Packers.
Matt Ryan is a solid QB and Roddy White is one of the best receivers in the NFL, but outside of White, Ryan doesn't have many options.
Smith would be a terror on the Georgia Dome's fast track and would stretch the field for Roddy White. The junior Terp started as a special team stand-out and his 2,192 all-purpose yards in 2009 set a Maryland single-season record, putting him second in ACC history.
Imagine kicking off to Smith and Pro Bowler Eric Weems in Atlanta. This would be a perfect fit for the Falcons and make Atlanta more contender than pretender in 2011.
It wouldn't be altogether surprising to see this pick made at 17 if the right defensive player isn't available for the Pats, but if Ingram falls this far he has to be the pick.
New England has won Super Bowls without a dearth of talent at the running back position, but putting a workhorse runner in the backfield with Tom Brady and that offense seems unstoppable.
A Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama, Ingram isn't a power back or a speed back, but can get tough yards as well as break big plays. He is quick in tight spaces and when he sees a cutback lane he can hit it in a hurry.
Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure may not be a bad pick here either if Ingram is off the board.
The Achilles heel for the Bears in 2010 was their inability to protect Jay Cutler combined with Cutler's inability to determine which team he was throwing to. If he had some talent at receiver, he might be able to tell a little bit better.
Unfortunately for Da Bears, there likely won't be a top tackle or receiver to take at this spot. There will be a glut of defensive talent and while the Bears front seven is as good as any in the league, the back end relies mostly on scheme rather than talent to be effective.
In a division with guys like Greg Jennings, Sydney Rice, and Calvin Johnson, the Bears could use some help, and the last time the Bears drafted a DB from "the U," it worked out pretty well.
Harris is an instinctive corner, although he's a better man defender than zone. He is fluid and agile with excellent hips. His tackling form could use some work, but as a nickel corner initially, he could could really help against the multiple receiver sets the top teams in the NFC like to use.
Rex Ryan's defense is predicated on disguising looks, being creative, and having versatile players.Without a top-flight pass rusher to take in this spot, Liuget isn't just the best defender available, he's the best overall player available at this spot.
Liuget decided to leave Illinois early after a dominating Texas Bowl against Baylor. He is not an explosive pass rusher, but is quick in tight spaces and uses his strong base and initial punch to create separation.
Current Jet DE Mike DeVito is a nice player, but nothing special and Shaun Ellis is a potential free agent this spring. Liuget could come in and be a Day 1 starter in New York (well, New Jersey).
People like the symmetry of drafting Steeler center Maurkice Pouncey's brother Mike, but that seems unlikely given where Pouncey ranks right now (although the Steelers O-line is a problem).
For Pittsburgh, who's calling card is defense, there are holes in the front seven as well. Brett Keisel has an outstanding beard, but is 32 while Aaron Smith is 34 and coming off a serious injury and All-Pro NT Casey Hampton is 33.
Paea could play end or tackle in Pittsburgh 3-4 front and is a natural run-stuffing tackle. He is short, powerful, and tremendously strong, making him tough to move at the point of attack. With some added mass he would be a solid replacement for Hampton, or could be a nice gap-stuffer opposite Ziggy Hood as an end.
Green Bay GM Ted Thompson is extremely difficult to peg because he will always take the best player available and usually his board looks a lot different than any other.
Coming off a Super Bowl Championship, it would not be surprising to see the Packers trade this pick for a team interested in Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. That's because Green Bay isn't hurting at any position.
Guard Daryn Colledge is a free agent and the Packers could take Baylor guard Danny Watkins to replace him. The Pack could also use another rush end opposite Clay Matthews, but there isn't value at this spot with the players left on the board.
However, Muhammed Wilkerson, a junior out of Temple, is exactly the kind of versatile player Thompson loves. Wilkerson moves as well as any 300 pounder in the draft, possessing the quickness to run down quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield.
He is a solid penetrating, but is sturdy at the point against the run. With Cullen Jenkins a free agent, Mike Neal coming off a serious injury, and Johny Jolly coming off his purple drank suspension, the Packers could use some additional flexibility along the defensive front.
UCLA S Rahim Moore or Illinois RB Mikel LeShoure could be solid picks here as well.