Springtime is here, and for football fans, that can mean only one thing: the Draft. Hope springs eternal for all 32 teams on April 28th as each one looks to find the future cornerstones of their franchise.
For me, there is no more exciting day in the NFL calendar year than the Draft (maybe that has more to do with me being a Bills fan, so I haven’t had a vested interest in the Super Bowl since I was four years old), so without further ado, here is my look at the premier prospects for this year’s draft and their most likely destinations.
10.) Tyron Smith- Offensive Tackle, USC (6’5’’, 305 lbs)
We start the countdown with a player who has very quietly risen up most draft boards this draft season, Tyron Smith. In a class that lacks elite offensive tackles such as a Jake Long or Joe Thomas, Smith has taken control of a very deep pool of linemen.
Declaring for the draft as a junior raised more than a couple eyebrows in the NFL community, and dropping out of the Combine didn’t help his case, but Smith’s talent is undeniable. He has the size, explosiveness and pass blocking ability to be a very good NFL starter, but he will need to improve his run blocking and his overall technique if he wants to be a star.
At No. 9, the Dallas Cowboys have done little to veil their interest in Smith, scouting him more than any other player. If the Cowboys want to make it to the playoffs this year, they have to protect their leader, Tony Romo, something they clearly failed to do last season.
Smith is a perfect fit for the ‘Boys as he could step in and start at right tackle almost immediately.
9.) Cam Newton- Quarterback, Auburn (6’5’’, 248 lbs)
There was no bigger breakout star in sports in 2010 than Cam Newton. His incredible blend of size, speed, quickness and arm strength was the catalyst for Auburn’s National Championship run.
Newton’s footwork and accuracy are concerns, but he has the capacity to fix them. He ran three different offenses in three years (winning two National Championships in the process) so football intelligence is clearly not an issue.
Dual-threat quarterbacks usually do not transfer to the NFL well, but Newton looks to be the exception, and he certainly has the capacity to run a pro style offense.
Newton could be drafted by any of the top 10 teams, even as high as No. 1 overall, but concerns about his accuracy could drop him to No. 10 where the Washington Redskins would be ecstatic to pick him up.
The Redskins are clearly not happy with their quarterbacks (remember when Coach Mike Shanahan pulled Donovan McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman with the game on the line against the Lions?), and selecting Newton would fill a big need. Owner Dan Snyder has no qualms about taking a superstar personality like Newton, and if he is available at No. 10, then he won’t be at No. 11.
8.) Julio Jones- Wide Receiver, Alabama (6’3’’, 220 lbs)
Julio Jones is as physically gifted a prospect as you are likely to find. He’s big, he’s fluid, he can jump and he can fly like the wind. Already seen as a top 15 prospect, Jones was the biggest winner at the Scouting Combine this February, blowing everyone away with a lightning-quick 4.39 40 time.
This performance helped push Jones into the top 10 of my rankings and has made many question whether or not A.J. Green is actually the best receiver in this draft. Jones has frustrating hands, dropping passes that you or I could catch, and his drive is questionable at best, but when he turns it on, he has the potential to be a Randy Moss-type player.
Speaking of Randy Moss, his former team, the Minnesota Vikings (who pick at No. 12), are in desperate need of some offensive help. Sure they have Adrian Peterson, but they are going to be starting a new quarterback in 2011 and he will need all the help he can get.
Sidney Rice is a great talent, but we can see how easily the Vikings’ offense can be slowed when he is injured and out of the lineup. Jones could start across from Rice on Day 1, and he would make life much easier for whomever the Vikes start at QB next season.
7.) Blaine Gabbert- Quarterback, Missouri (6’4’’, 236 lbs)
To the average football fan, Blaine Gabbert seems to have come out of nowhere in the months since the season ended. However, more dedicated fans have known about Gabbert for years and see how talented he is.
Don’t worry about his less-than-stellar (3,186 yards, just 16 touchdowns) stats, Gabbert has all the tools to be a very good NFL quarterback. He can make all the throws with his arm strength, and he has speed on par with Cam Newton (4.62 40 for Gabbert versus 4.58 for Newton).
Like Newton, Gabbert’s accuracy has been a concern over the course of his career, but at Missouri’s pro day, he completed 44 of 49 passes and seemed to silence most of his doubters.
There is an unwritten rule for teams picking at the top of the NFL Draft. If there is a franchise quarterback available, you must take him, and the Carolina Panthers look like are listening.
Even though the Panthers have bigger needs on the defensive line, their need for a quarterback trumps everything else, and if they believe Gabbert is truly a “franchise” type of guy, they have to take him at No. 1.
Even though they have young quarterbacks in Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen, Gabbert would step in and immediately compete for the starting job and give the Panthers a spark that they desperately need.
6.) Robert Quinn- Defensive End, North Carolina (6’4’’, 264 lbs)
It’s not often that college players sit out for an entire season and still wind up getting drafted in the top 10, but that is exactly what Quinn looks to do.
After being ruled permanently ineligible for receiving improper benefits and having contact with an agent, Quinn was forced to miss the entire 2010 season, but shockingly, this hasn’t seemed to hurt his draft status one bit.
Quinn, who had 11 sacks as a sophomore, is a terror off the edge with adequate speed and an array of pass rushing moves to get around, or through, linemen. He needs to add some bulk, 10-15 lbs, but that should not be a concern for teams considering drafting him.
Quinn has the heart and drive of a champion, as he has already beaten brain cancer and still managed to have a good career at UNC.
A great spot for Robert Quinn to be selected would be at No. 8 to the Tennessee Titans. The Titans defense was abysmal this past season, surrendering 367 total yards per game, and while they gave up much of that through the air, getting to the quarterback would help decrease these numbers significantly.
That is where Quinn steps in. He gets to the quarterback and gets sacks. Quinn will re-energize the Titans weak pass rush and would team up very well with DE Jason Babin, who broke out in 2010 to give quarterbacks nightmares.
5.) Da’Quan Bowers- Defensive End, Clemson (6’3’’, 280 lbs)
You would be hard pressed to find a more maddening player than Da’Quan Bowers in his first two seasons at Clemson. The No. 1 recruit in all of high school in 2008 racked up just four total sacks in his freshman and sophomore years, but in 2010 everything finally clicked.
At long last Bowers turned into the player he was supposed to be, racking up 15.5 sacks to lead all college football. Bowers has the strength to push through linemen and the speed to go right around them.
He is a tough player who won’t quit on you, but injuries have been a concern throughout his career, including a knee injury that he is still currently recovering from. Teams need to do their homework on Bowers. Was he a one-year wonder, or was 2010 really his breakout season?
The Arizona Cardinals’ defense was atrocious last year, plain and simple. While they have needs at multiple positions, including quarterback, the Cardinals seem to be (inexplicably) comfortable with Max Hall or John Skelton taking the reins in 2011.
Getting sacks and stopping the run are major concerns for the Cards and Bowers would help both of those issues at No. 5. Bowers has the size to stuff the run and has the potential to rack up 10-plus sacks year in and year out.
4.) A.J. Green- Wide Receiver, Georgia (6’3’’, 211 lbs)
There is no two ways about it—A.J. Green is a stud. When building a prototypical wideout, it’s hard to come up with a better design than Green. His blend of size, great hands, jumping ability and incredible body control make Green one of the premier prospects for the 2011 Draft.
Green has hands that seem to be covered in glue. He can just pull in any ball thrown his way. Comparisons to Calvin Johnson are warranted as they can both make catches that almost nobody else can (Just look at this gem against Colorado this season).
Even though Green was suspended for four games this season, he still managed to put up career bests in catches and touchdowns with a freshman quarterback.
At No. 4 the Cincinnati Bengals could go a number of ways. If they really believe that Carson Palmer will retire, they might take a quarterback, but no matter who lines up behind center, they need to get him some help.
Chad Ochocinco is on the backside of his career and Terrell Owens likely won’t return, so AJ Green would make a lot of sense here. Green has the talent to compete with Ochocinco for the No. 1 receiver spot already, and he is only going to get better.
3.) Von Miller- Outside Linebacker, Texas A&M (6’3’’, 247 lbs)
Outside linebackers aren’t usually rated as high as Von Miller is here, but then again, outside linebackers aren’t usually as talented as Von Miller either.
Nobody in this draft class racks up sacks more effectively than Miller, recording 32 sacks and 50 tackles-for-loss during his illustrious career. Miller has exploded this offseason, killing it at the Senior Bowl and the Draft Combine, where he showed off his incredible speed and quickness, as well as his impressive coverage skills.
He may not be the biggest linebacker, and it would behoove him to add 10-15 lbs, but regardless of his stature, Von Miller will be a star in the NFL.
Drafting in the first round has been a big challenge for the Buffalo Bills in the last 10-plus years, and while Von Miller may look like Aaron Maybin to some Bills fans, he should be the pick at No. 3.
The Bills had the worst run defense in the league last season, and they need to vastly improve their front seven. Miller has the strength to help stop the run, but also the raw pass rushing ability that the Bills have lacked since Bruce Smith. In a league that is becoming more and more dependent on the pass rush, Von Miller has to be the pick to give the Bills that ability.
2.) Patrick Peterson- Cornerback, LSU (6’0’’, 219 lbs)
Patrick Peterson, pound for pound, is quite possibly the most athletic prospect in the draft. Peterson is built like Sean Taylor, covers like Darrelle Revis and flies like Usain Bolt.
If you put all that together, you end up with one of the best defensive back prospects this decade. Peterson is the definition of a shutdown cornerback, a guy who can take your No. 1 wide receiver completely out of a game.
Playing in the SEC against future-NFLers such as A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery and Randall Cobb has prepared Peterson for life in the big league. If there is one “sure thing” in this draft, it’s Patrick Peterson.
Despite everything I just said about Peterson, don’t be surprised to see him fall out of the top 5, not through any fault of his own, but because cornerbacks just aren’t taken that high in recent drafts.
Since 2000, only two cornerbacks have been taken in the top 5 (Quentin Jammer and Terrence Newman), and because of this I see Peterson going to the San Francisco 49ers at pick No. 7.
The Niners have been searching for a stud corner for years, especially after Nate Clements busted for them after his huge payday. Peterson and safety Taylor Mays would provide the Niners with a very athletic, young defensive backfield for years to come.
1.) Marcell Dareus- Defensive Lineman, Alabama (6’3’’, 319 lbs)
As we end our countdown, we arrive at the best prospect in the 2011 NFL Draft: Marcell Dareus. Dareus has great size and strength, but what really separates him from the field is his versatility.
He has the size to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 front but also the speed and quickness to kick out to defensive end in a 3-4 front. Dareus is as explosive off the line as they come, and he does a great job of getting into the backfield very quickly.
He is not a one-trick pony either as he can rush the passer or stuff the run with great ability. It's hard to find anything bad to say about Dareus.
He has had multiple great seasons, he has played clutch in key games (i.e. 2010 National Championship game vs. Texas), he has a great personality and he seems willing to work hard enough to be a star in the NFL.
Assuming Carolina goes after a quarterback at No. 1, the Denver Broncos executives will be doing cartwheels to the podium to announce their selection at No. 2. The Broncos had the worst overall defense and the second worst run defense in 2010, so their needs are obvious.
Dareus would fit in perfectly in the Broncos scheme and would start instantly at any position they put him at. Assuming Elvis Dumervil returns at 100 percent next season, he and Dareus would make an excellent pairing on the line and would ensure a vastly improved defense in 2011.
Nick Fairley- Defensive Tackle, Auburn
Prince Amukamara- Cornerback, Nebraska
J.J. Watt- Defensive End, Wisconsin
Matt Masterson is a contributing writer for BleacherReport.com and Badgerballs.wordpress.com. Find this and other great articles at Badgerballs.wordpress.com