NFL Mock Drafts for the 2011 first-year player draft are the perfect remedy for the incessant talk of the NFL labor dispute and looming potential for a work stoppage.
Even if all the controversy and issues continue to swirl around the upcoming expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players association, the draft is still a shining beacon of light for fans of all the NFL's teams to look forward to.
Most players are getting ready to head to the combine in order to give their draft stock one last push upwards, but there are still some individual workouts taking place. Such was the case with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, who held a private media day this week and drew rave reviews.
How has the draft depth chart changed over the last few weeks? What players are on the way up, and whose stock is slipping as the combine approaches?
I'll try and predict who will go where for all 32 first round picks. So go ahead and click through to see who I see each team selecting in the 2011 NFL Draft's first round.
The Carolina Panthers have a lot of holes, but I think Nick Fairley fills the biggest hole on their defense, slotting in right in the central part of their defensive line and immediately becoming a force in both running and passing situations.
Fairley had a huge game in college football's finale, leaving a great impression on NFL scouts and fans alike. He's also had a strong track record of success at Auburn, and while players like Da'Quan Bowers, A.J. Green and Patrick Peterson might be just as talented and physically capable of being big playmakers, I think Fairley is the surest bet to both fit with what the Panthers want to accomplish in 2011, and also be able to make an instant impact.
Carolina would do well to grab Fairley and use him as a defensive building block for years to come.
Da'Quan Bowers is the ideal John Fox defensive end: extremely athletic, a pass rushing fiend and a physical specimen in the mold of another former Fox standout, Julius Peppers. The Broncos struggled in the pass rush last year, left without an elite pass rusher once Elvis Dumervil was lost for the season early on.
Hiring a defensive-minded coach like John Fox, who values rushers off the edge, increases the likelihood of going defense here at the number two pick. Another possibility for the Broncos is certainly LSU cornerback, Patrick Peterson, especially since Champ Bailey's contract status is uncertain and he's getting up there in age.
Bowers didn't have a fully successful career at Clemson, struggling early on, but his final year was dynamic and dominant. I think Denver grabs him and plugs him in at defensive end, trying to pair him with Dumervil in the hopes of creating an imposing pass rush that allows Coach Fox to play to his defensive strengths.
Buffalo has decent depth at cornerback right now, but Peterson immediately becomes the team's top defensiveback 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 the Bills turn to him 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.
I could have seen Peterson going one or two in this draft, but I think Carolina and Denver have bigger needs than corner help. But the Bills shouldn't pass up the chance to add a player of Peterson's caliber.
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. Cincinnati definitely has a need at receiver, thanks to the impending departure of Chad Ochocinco and lack of much depth at the position that could develop into top-flight receivers. Even with their quarterback situation unsettled thanks to Carson Palmer's desire to be traded, I think Cincinnati plucks Green at number four.
Texas A&M's Von Miller could slide in as an outside linebacker and assert himself as an impact pass rusher right off the bat.
Miller is a player who saw 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.
That lead to a number of draft analysts opining that he was increasingly looking like a top five selection, and with Arizona needing to turn around a hugely disappointing 2010 season, Miller looks like the guy they could target at number five.
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 despite slipping down to number six.
The Cleveland Browns are going to a 4-3 defense and have only one viable defensive end on their roster, who for years has played in the 3-4. Adding Quinn gives them an immediate boost on the defensive edges, and could help improve their pass rush considerably heading in to 2011.
The new San Francisco regime has a lot of holes to fill, but I don't see them reaching for a passer at number seven. No guarantee that they can't find a quality quarterback on the free agent or trade market, and I think that's the route that the Niners take while trying to fix their anemic passing offense.
Cornerback Nate Clements is getting up there, and I think the ideal complement to the veteran 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 San Francisco is happy to take Amukamara here and plug him in in their secondary next season and beyond.
Gabbert is considered the best quarterback prospect in this Andrew Luck-free draft, and Tennessee is one of a number of teams that need a new passer heading into the 2011 season. With a new coach in place and with the explicit plan to unload quarterback Vince Young, the Titans need a new franchise quarterback to build around. I think Gabbert is that player.
Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus is the best player available at this spot, and I think Jerry Jones has a hard time passing him up. There's a weak spot on that defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys, and Dareus would slide right in alongside Jay Ratliff at either end spot and be an immediate upgrade. It's never a slam dunk to predict what the Cowboys will do on draft day, but they would be wise to snatch up Dareus in this spot.
A quarterback is desperately needed in D.C., but I think Blaine Gabbert is the one guy Mike Shanahan and company would pick at number 10, if he were available. However, since the Titans are picking him in this mock draft, I think the Redskins go defense with this pick and select Cal's dynamic pass rusher, Cameron Jordan.
Jordan impressed at the recent Senior Bowl, dominating quality offensive linemen that are expected to be taken in the early stages of this same 2011 draft. The Redskins need help along the defensive front, which was oftentimes dominated by opposing offensive lines.
Jordan would be a strong first step towards re-establishing the Redskins' defensive strength.
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.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner held a private media day workout this week, and I think Cam Newton's stock is surging a bit as we head closer to the combine, and the draft itself. There are so many teams with needs at quarterback, that I no longer see him slipping down beyond number 12 and the Minnesota Vikings.
Reports on Newton's mechanics and throwing motion have improved recently, and it's undeniable that he's physically gifted enough to make plays in the NFL as it stands now. But I think Minnesota takes a chance on developing him into a bona fide field general and accurate passer.
Nate Solder didn't have a great Senior Bowl, but he's still a very talented offensive lineman that is high on NFL scouts' wish lists heading into draft day. The Detroit Lions definitely need help along the offensive line if they're going to keep their franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford, upright and healthy for a full season.
I think drafting Solder will immediately help the Lions' pass protection, and might allow them to find some running space out on the edges. Solder has good size but could benefit from adding some weight, but his raw athletic ability is what draws him the biggest raves. If he can bring that to the table in pre-draft workouts, I think he is a safe bet to go in the top 15, and to Detroit at number 13, specifically.
Julio Jones' 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.
The Dolphins' biggest need is running back, especially since it's no guarantee that one of Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams returns for next season. Mark Ingram is the best rusher available, and despite suffering through a bit of a down year at Alabama thanks to knee surgery, I think he steps in and plays well for the Dolphins.
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 during Senior Bowl practices. I think Kerrigan has all the tools to become an effective pass rusher in the NFL, and the Jaguars will grab him at 16 and hope he can help improve a defense that struggled badly at times last season.
Liuget is a player whose stock is on the rise as the combine approaches. The Patriots are always looking to upgrade on the defensive side of the ball, and I think this versatile defensive lineman would plug in well in the Belichick system.
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 San Diego Chargers take the chance on Clayborn and plug him in at defensive end on their line. They could lose Jacques Cesaire to free agency, so Clayborn could be a natural fit as a replacement.
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.
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.
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. I think that player is Wisconsin defensive lineman J.J. Watt. He has the physical skills and plays with the type of determination that will serve him well at the next level, and he seems like he would be a solid addition to the Buccaneers' defensive line.
UCLA's Akeem Ayers is the best pure linebacker to choose from at this point in the draft, and the Kansas City Chiefs need someone on the edges of their 3-4 defense to rush the passer. 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 Chiefs because he'll form a strong tandem with Tamba Hali in terms of bringing pressure from the outside.
In 2010, the Indianapolis Colts offensive front struggled in a number of games to keep Peyton 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. That's good news for the Eagles, who could replace the embattled Winston Justice with Carimi and hope to improve protection against oft-blitzing defenses.
Georgia's Justin Houston is a talented pass rusher who could step into the New Orleans Saints' defense and have an immediate impact. 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 the Saints' current pass rushers, giving offensive coordinators fits as they try to protect their quarterbacks from a defense that has multiple options to use to bring pressure.
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.
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. Baltimore desperately needs help at wide receiver after getting little return on their investments in Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Joe Flacco needs a fast, play making target out wide, and I think Smith is the best candidate for the job.
Titus Young is undersized, which works against him when weighing his NFL draft stock. But he is also unbelievably quick and explosive, a DeSean Jackson-type player that excels at running with the ball in his hands. The Falcons have a great number one option in receiver Roddy White, but with Young in the fold, Atlanta could truly develop a game-breaking vertical passing attack. Teams won't be able to focus solely on White, as Young's speed will need to be accounted for each time he's on the field.
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. 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.
Phil Taylor is a nose tackle that's got a bit of a checkered background after being dismissed from Penn State a few years ago due to an assault charge levied against him. He went to Baylor and re-built his football career, and now he's seeing his draft stock improving as the draft approaches. He had a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl, has been losing weight in the later part of his college career after being much larger when he started his NCAA career.
The Jets always value quality pass rushers and run stuffers, and Taylor fits that model to a T. He makes a lot of sense in Rex Ryan's system, and would be added quality depth.
Corner back Jimmy Smith has played his way into the first round and could see his stock continue to increase with a good showing at the combine. The Steelers struggled in their secondary, especially during the Super Bowl when they were carved up by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers' passing game. Smith has the athletic tools to transition into Dick LeBeau's defense, and I think the Steelers look to bolster their secondary with the 31st pick.
Cameron Heyward struggled at times for Ohio State in his last year on campus, but he still has the ability to make a difference at the NFL level. The Packers' 3-4 defense benefits from having explosive players on the edges, as it opens up opportunities for Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji to penetrate through the middle of the offensive line. Adding another pass rusher like Heyward to the mix would help Green Bay solidify one of their team's biggest strengths, their defensive front.