With the season at an end and the future of the NFL still up in the air for next year, there is only one real event to look forward to this offseason and that is the Draft. Franchises will make or break their futures based on the choices of this one day, find pieces to the championship puzzle or simply push that image further out of focus.
The headlines going in are clear:
Who will be the first quarterback drafted out of a group smattered with big name prospects?
Where will the likes of Carolina, Denver, and Buffalo go when they each have so many holes to fill?
How will the teams like the Pats, Steelers, and Falcons respond to make another run at the Super Bowl and how will the Packers try and get better coming off a championship?
What pieces will the teams on the brink like St. Louis, Houston, Kansas City, and Detroit (yes Detroit) find in the middling rounds to push them over the top?
Only time will tell, but here are my best guesses as to how those questions may be answered in the first round. Here we go...
On any given Saturday this past season, Auburn had arguably the most dominant player on the offensive AND defensive sides of the football. Nick Fairley possesses a big frame and probably projects best as a 4-3 defensive tackle or maybe a 3-4 defensive end at the next level. He has an unstoppable motor, great quickness, and a freakish ability to create penetration from the inside. For as shoddy as Auburn's secondary was last season, it would have been a lot worse had Fairley not provided near constant pressure against opposing quarterbacks, taking over entire football games at times with his athletic ability.
On the brink of beginning a new regime in Carolina and having lost defensive freak Julius Peppers in the last off-season, the Panthers are looking to put a new face to their defense and Fairley is clearly the man for the job.
I'm very tempted to put Patrick Peterson here with this pick, but corner isn't a pressing need for the Broncos while Champ Bailey still has a few good years left in his legs. On the other hand, the Broncos need to get better in the front seven with great running teams in Kansas City, Oakland, and San Diego to a degree.
Bowers fills this gap adequately, providing a large, athletic, and skilled body that will be capable of both stopping the run and rushing the passer well at the next level. This combination of Bowers and Dumervil wreaking havoc up front under John Fox can only better the chances for Denver and will be necessary if they are to compete with a mediocre offense, especially if Tebow ends up as the starter.
Many people are riding the Cam Newton train with this pick, but I believe that Ryan Fitzpatrick is a decent option at quarterback for now and Peterson is too good to pass up. In my opinion, Peterson is the best prospect in the entire draft, but the modern NFL game is built around rushing the passer and that is why the two great lineman prospects will go first. That being said, he is the best cornerback prospect in a strong class of corners this year. With top tier athleticism, great size, good physicality, and great ball skills, he has the potential to be one of the top shutdown corners in the NFL in three or four years.
Peterson definitely fills a need for the Bills in a division with the Tom Brady led Patriots passing attack, an up and coming aerial force with Sanchez and the Jets, and the likes of Brandon Marshall to cover against the Dolphins. In the SEC, he consistently was matched up against a team's top wideout, including the likes of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, and was able to isolate them on an island. In addition, he was a great return man for the Tigers, giving them good field position most of the time, which also translated to good numbers on his interception returns as he averaged over 25 yards per return.
If the Bengals remain unwilling to trade Carson Palmer, than they need to try and bring in players to make him happy. A.J. Green is just such a player. With great size, good speed, crisp route-running, and hands like superglue, he is definitively the best offensive player in the draft and any quarterback would do well to play with him. With the combination of Green, Jermaine Gresham, and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco as receiving options, Carson Palmer is a very lucky guy. Well, except for the part where he plays for Cincinnati, but with receivers like these, who cares?
Like I said, a good pass rush is the pathway to win championships and there is no better pass rusher than Miller. In the pass happy Big 12, he registered 10.5 sacks and was the Butkus Award winner as the nation's top linebacker. His great size and speed will translate well to the next level and he should be primed for an immediate defensive impact with the great Cardinal secondary and Darnell Dockett in the trenches as support.
Though the Cardinals do need a quarterback, I think they are still very interested in manufacturing a deal for Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia and would be hesitant to draft one in the first round unless they found one they absolutely loved. That being said, even if they don't get a quarterback, a Cardinals defense with Miller on the field would be very fun to watch next year.
If A.J. Green falls to this pick, it'll be no contest as the Browns will gobble him up and while that is a distinct possibility with the turmoil in Cincinnati, I think the Browns have to look at the best fit left available. Cleveland is moving in the right direction, with young offensive talent and the best offensive line in the game today. Dareus would fill a big gap on the defensive front for them and would continue the influx of new, young talent started with Joe Haden last year.
Although it does tickle my funny bone to think what the Browns would be like in the future the drafted Prince Amukamara to go alongside Haden in the secondary, the pick just doesn't make sense after they traded for Sheldon Brown. Dareus is the pick unless something drastic happens between now and the draft.
I'll say this right off the bat: I'm not a big fan of Blaine Gabbert. That being said, this pick makes sense for one main reason: new coach means new regime, new regime means new quarterback. The 49ers have the talent to win the West, but lack consistent quarterback play. Harbaugh, while at Stanford, helped forge Andrew Luck into the unquestioned number one pick in this year's draft if he had come out and I believe he can do the same for Gabbert. Gabbert has all of the physical skills necessary, he just needs to adjust to a pro style offense from his college spread. This pick gives the 49ers a good option at quarterback going forward while simultaneously creating a quarterback competition this season to enhance the play of Alex Smith.
The Titans need a quarterback, that much is certain. However, I doubt that they will be willing to take on Cam Newton because of his similarities to Vince Young as a player, making them inclined to trade for a quarterback. Thus, they draft the best player available and fill a need at the same time. Amukamara is an excellent corner and definitely has potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler if developed correctly. The Titans pass defense gave up over 250 yards per game last year and clearly needs an upgrade. Putting Amukamara across from Finnegan on the defense gives them an extremely strong secondary and allows the Titans to play around with blitz packages and the like.
There is no player with more to prove at this NFL Combine than Robert Quinn. Yes he has character issues, yes he didn't play all of last season, but despite all of that, he is undisputedly a dominant pass rusher in a league that covets such skills. Jerry Jones has shown in the past that he is willing to bet on players with troubled pasts, as evidenced by the Dez Bryant pick last year, and the Cowboys desperately need to shore up their pass defense. This is too high of a pick to use on any of the remaining corners and this would create a devilish pass rushing tandem between Quinn and Ware on defense. While this won't fix all of the Cowboy's problems, this definitely puts them in the right direction.
Owner Dan Snyder has a habit of taking risks on players with athletic talent. Mike Shanahan made it very clear that Donovan McNabb is not his quarterback and Rex Grossman is not the answer. Cam Newton has been shooting up draft boards since the end of the season with his showings of athleticism and ability. I think that certain teams will shy away from Newton because of uncertainty about his pay-to-play controversy and the fact that he is a scrambler more than a pocket passer, but the Redskins will readily embrace Newton as their quarterback of the future. One note though, he will do much better if given an opportunity to sit and learn behind a veteran before he plays.
The Texans defense was shredded last year especially against the pass. They only managed 30 sacks as a unit and need to bring in a pass rushing presence. Aldon Smith represents one of those tweener players that could play end or linebacker at the next level and this versatility can be used by Houston, allowing Smith to be moved around and to wreak havoc alongside the likes of Brian Cushing and Super Mario Williams. While he won't fix all ailments, Smith is a definite move in the right direction for Houston's battered defense.
The Vikings are in dire need of a quarterback, but I don't think that there are any remaining who are worth this high of a pick, so expect the Vikings to try and trade out of the pick or for a quarterback from another team. However, if the Vikings keep the pick, expect Carimi to be a solid option. The Vikings love having big, physical lineman and Carimi definitely fits that bill. In addition, he is an absolute mauler when it comes to run blocking, something that could only help Adrian Peterson and the offense. Imagine what would happen if the Vikings stacked their line with Bryant McKinnie, Phil Loadholt, and Gabe Carimi. They wouldn't need to throw the football with all that beef.
The Lions, though they have numerous holes, are on the rise. That being said, they lacked a consistent quarterback and had injuries to Jahvid Best that nagged his spectacular start. With those inconsistencies, the Lions won games using their defense and they need to keep building that side of the ball. Ayers provides another athletic pass rusher to go alongside the dominant play of Ndamukong Suh. With a strong defensive units and enough big play guys on offense, the Lions might just challenge for a playoff spot, or at the very least mess up some potential playoff team who doesn't believe in Detroit's talent.
This pick is as close as there is to a sure thing in this year's draft. Rookie Sam Bradford looked impressive for the Rams last season except for one thing: He had no one to throw to. Julio Jones is a big potential target for Bradford with adequate speed, good physicality, and great vertical ability. He has a tendency to drop the ball at times, but that fault can be worked out of his game by NFL coaches. If Bradford gets the targets he needs on offense, the Rams have to become the favorites to win the abysmal NFC West next year.
The only more sure thing than Julio Jones going to the Rams is that his Alabama teammate will go to the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins could lose one or both of their long time running backs in Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, a devastating loss for a team that prides itself on running the ball well. Mark Ingram has all the tools to be a great back in this league: Good size, great hands, great vision, Emmitt Smith like quickness, and deceptive speed. All he needs to do is prove that he can catch the ball and that he is prepared to handle a full-time workload in the NFL and remain healthy. This is a great pick for Miami that will truly help their team down the road and immediately.
The Jaguars need to increase their viability on the defensive line and Jordan is a way to do that. He feels like a jack-of-all-trades as a defensive lineman to me who could end up being very good at a lot of different things for whoever picks him. The Jaguars chose Tyler Alualu much higher than anyone thought he would be picked, thus showing that they believe in whatever the Golden Bears are putting in the water back west. Even more so, Jordan comes off as a very upstanding character, one who is a hard worker and will buckle down and strive to get better over time.
The main weaknesses of the Patriots last year were the lack of a consistent deep threat on offense and a lackluster pass rush defensively. There is no good cure for the former at this pick, so expect New England to address the latter. Houston is a monster pass rusher who will fit right in with Belichick because of his team-first, humble attitude. Although he does play a bit wild and raw, that can be coached out of him with time. He will make an immediate impact on this defense next season.
The Chargers need another pass rusher to compliment Shaun Phillips since the degradation and release of Shawn Merriman. This move allows Luis Castillo to play nosetackle and eat up blockers inside. Kerrigan has an outstanding motor and good moves to reach the passer in addition to above average quickness for his size. Kerrigan would be a welcome addition for a team that still has major playoff aspirations despite their underperformance last season.
Jimmy Smith represents a big, physical, athletic corner that is comfortable in man to man coverage. As evidenced by the Packers last season, good, physical corners are the second piece of a great pass rushing team. Those strong coverage skills will be used prodigiously in the Giant's high pressure defensive system. The Giants don't have any true weaknesses on their team, so they get to use this pick to upgrade an already strong defensive backfield.
The Buccaneers surprised a lot of people last season with their success in the stout NFC South. To continue their path upward, they need to draft more skill and depth for their young defensive line unit to help set a strong tone on D. Clayborn is a good, athletic end that should be able to help disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage for the defense consistently, which will only free up Barrett Ruud to make more tackles.
The Chiefs struggled last season when they were forced to throw the ball against better defenses. This was mainly a problem because Dwayne Bowe, their big physical threat at wideout, could be double teamed and they had no other option to go to. But what would happen if they had two big physical threats at wideout? Baldwin is a possession receiver in every sense of the word, a massive body with good hands and vertical skills that will provide a huge target for Matt Kassel and will provide even more balance to one of the league's up and coming offensive units.
Peyton Manning needs better protection for the Colts throw, throw, throw offense. Solder gives them just that. He is a huge body with great athleticism and good pass blocking skills, a perfect fit for this offense. If the Colts have him available and don't pick him, I'll be shocked.
The Eagles were a completely different team when franchise quarterback Michael Vick was out of the lineup last season, and he was out early and often. Getting hit is just a part of his game, but that risk can be reduced if Vick has quality lineman in front of him to prevent sacks. Castonzo is very athletic and large, but lacks overall strength. However, this shouldn't be a problem in blocking the deadly speed rushers of the NFC East.
The biggest reason that the Saints fell off last year from their Super Bowl run is that they were unable to replicate the turnover numbers that kept feeding their great offense the ball. Moore helps to alleviate that problem as he is a ballhawk in the truest sense of the word. His ability to create takeaways should help re-infuse an aging Saints defense with the energy that sent them to greatness two years ago.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good story, but I really want to see this one happen. I don't know if he will last this long after his combine, but I sure hope he does. As far as practicality goes though, this pick makes perfect sense. The Seahawks need a quarterback to replace Matt Hasselbeck because he can't have games like the one against the Saints on every night. Charlie Whitehurst is not the answer for the future, just a really good backup. Though Jake Locker has the physical skills to play at the next level, he is extremely raw with his execution. However, he did play under Steve Sarkisian at Washington, the former offensive coordinator to Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. Thus, his transition to the NFL should be made that much easier.
Although the Raven need help in the secondary, I would wait to see what they can do about Nnamdi Asomugha coming to Baltimore. That being said, Pouncey is too good to pass up, especially considering the success of his brother in rival Pittsburgh. Current center Matt Birk is on his last legs and the Ravens could potentially have holes on the inside of their offensive line, holes that Pouncey could fill quite aptly. If he has anywhere near the talent his brother has, Pouncey will be a good football player in Baltimore.
The Falcons would like to take a wideout with this pick, but there are none left worthy of the selection. Thus, Atlanta will draft Sherrod to try and improve the protection around Matt Ryan, who was harried mercilessly in the Falcon's playoff loss to the Packers. Sherrod is extremely athletic and should fit well into the balanced offensive scheme that the Falcons tend to lean towards.
The Patriots are always good about stockpiling the best player available and for many people, J.J. Watt should be gone by now. However, there are so many great defensive line prospects that he has fallen to the Patriots. That's okay, Belichick will be able to incorporate his large frame and good ability to improve a susceptible New England defense.
Let's face facts: Despite the surprising success of the Chicago Bears last season, Jay Cutler got his lunch eaten. He was sacked more times than any other quarterback in the league and it showed in his injuries he sustained. Although the Bears would like to draft Cutler a big bodied target to throw to, they first and foremost need to make sure that he stays upright next season and Smith helps them to do this.
While the Jets may look for a defensive lineman with this slot, I think that Smith is a much safer selection for the team here. Three of the Jets top four receivers are up in free agency this year and the CBA negotiations complicate their resigning. Smith has big play potential and is exceptionally fast, allowing him to get down the field as a deep threat for Mark Sanchez. The Jets typically don't throw the ball that much, so it is imperative that they have receivers who can make plays after the catch, something Smith can do with his athletic abilities even despite his average hands.
This is a simple problem of need for the Steelers. Their offensive line is the biggest weakness on a very strong, physical team and Ijalana would help fill that need. He dominated in college at small time Villanova, so it is questioned whether he can repeat at the next level, but his good, well rounded skill set should help out in a big way. Expect him to be a solid option at guard going forward.
The Packers are world champs and have the luxury of trying to improve an already great team. Charles Woodson is getting older and might move to safety in the next few years, shifting Pro Bowl snub Tramon Williams to starting corner and leaving a hole at the number two spot. Sam Shields doesn't translate as an outside corner, so the Packers draft another stud from Miami to fill the void. Harris has great speed and quickness and is good in man to man coverage, a must in the Packers heavy blitzing defense. Harris might improve his stock at the combine, but I think he just might find a home at Lambeau with the Pack.