This year's NFL draft will be an interesting one. Will the lack of free agency force teams to scramble to fill needs via the draft? Will there be trades within the top 10 or five picks of the draft? Are we going to see a record high for defensive lineman taken in the first round, or a record low of running backs taken? Who will be the first quarterback taken?
1) The Carolina Panthers select Alabama DT Marcel Dareus
Dareus is hands down the best player available in the NFL draft 2011. There are only four elite players in this draft (A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Von Miller and Dareus), according to most football experts, but of the four, no one is as versatile as Dareus.
Dareus showed his elite talent in a game against Auburn this past year during back-to-back plays. The first play was the oh-so-famous corralling of Cam Newton in space. Coming off the edge, Dareus played contain, preventing Newton from getting outside the pocket when he was looking to scramble. Then, breaking down in space, Dareus effectively closed on Newton and brought him to the ground for a loss on the play.
The very next snap, Dareus was positioned in the middle of the defensive line and completely blew through the line of scrimmage on a run sweep to the running back, resulting in a gain of zero. Dareus gives a defensive coordinator the option to play him anywhere along the line and he can be effective from any position. Add to that his versatility, athletic ability, size, strength and awareness on the field, and the result is chaotic disruption along the line of scrimmage.
2) The Denver Broncos select LSU CB Patrick Peterson
Peterson is in the mold of Champ Bailey. He is big, strong, incredibly fast and athletic and has the ball skills of a No. 1 receiver. Denver still has Bailey, after he signed a contract extension with the Broncos right before the lockout this year, but he’s well into his 30s. Peterson can be the next great cornerback in Denver.
The great thing is, defenses normally employ two or three cornerbacks on the field at the same time, so Champ and Peterson can give the Broncos an incredible cornerback tandem until Bailey is ready to move on to safety or retirement.
The Broncos had an explosive passing game last year and only expect it to get better as their first-round wide receiver from last year’s draft, Demaryius Thomas, enters his second year in the league. So selecting Green in this slot wouldn’t make as much sense. Neither would selecting Miller, though if the Broncos were still running a 3-4 scheme, Miller may be my pick here.
Denver, however, is switching back to the 4-3 and though Miller is a great prospect and can play in either scheme, he’d be more valuable to a 3-4 team as an outside rusher. So with Dareus gone, Peterson is the pick here.
3) The Buffalo Bills select Auburn QB Cam Newton
Yes two of the four elite draft prospects remain on the board, but if Newton is still available when the Bills pick, I have no doubt in my mind they will go with Newton.
Buffalo is hurting for viewership, fan loyalty and ticket sales and seem open to making a move to Canada in the near future. They need some pizzazz in their game, some wow moments and some players that will make ESPN 's "Top Ten" highlights. That is why they went with C.J. Spiller last year with No. 9 overall pick, instead of shoring up their offensive line with a tackle prospect.
Newton might be raw and inexperienced, but he brings that “wow” factor. And in windy, cold Buffalo, his arm strength, size and running ability make him a great fit for the harsh Upper New York weather.
The Bills know their fanbase is in dire need of saving, so they should and will be swinging for the fences in this draft, starting with the selection of Newton.
4) The Cincinnati Bengals select Georgia WR A.J. Green
If Green is still available, this would be an easy selection for the Bengals. They’ve more or less had it with Chad Ochocinco the last few years but haven't had a suitable replacement for the colorful receiver.
Now they do with A.J. Green.
Green could single-handedly bring Carson Palmer back from the ledge. He's anything and everything you could want in a receiver. Green is big and tall with a huge throwing radius for whomever his quarterback turns out to be. He’s a savvy route runner, deceptively strong, tough over the middle and his ability to track the ball and haul it in better than anyone else in this draft, bar none.
He is an incredible talent at the wide receiver position and will build an immediate trust with his quarterback. The Bengals need a big receiver and drafting Green will alleviate that need, while giving them great value for their No. 4 overall pick.
5) The Arizona Cardinals select Texas A&M OLB Von Miller
This is another easy selection if the player is available at this spot. Miller is what Arizona has been lacking ever since they dabbled with the 3-4 defense. Bertrand Berry produced at a high level for them for a couple seasons, but the Cardinals never had an outside rusher coming from a two-point stance like Miller.
His speed and explosion off the ball are uncanny. His ability to bend and stay balanced is astonishing, and his production in college is proof of his superior physical skills.
The Cardinals lost the Super Bowl against the Steelers because of their defense, specifically because they couldn’t get to Big Ben. They couldn’t prevent Pittsburgh from driving the length of the field in the last few minutes of the game and scoring the winning touchdown. Getting to the quarterback is something they must improve immediately in order to compete.
The NFC West title is not far out of reach, not for the Cardinals or any other division foe. Miller will come in and impact his team's game from day one. I know Blaine Gabbert is tempting, but he’s not going to sack the other team’s quarterback.
6) The Cleveland Browns select Auburn DT Nick Fairley
This is where the picks will get tricky. Cleveland has a number of needs, and though Green is gone, Julio Jones still remains. Jones would be tempting at this spot, as the Browns could use a playmaker to team up with their young signal-caller Colt McCoy.
However, unlike the Broncos, who are switching back to a 4-3 defensive scheme and have Elvis Dumervil to help ease that transition, Cleveland is returning to the 4-3 but has no dominant presence along their defensive line. Obtaining Fairley gives the Browns a much-needed pass rush up the middle.
7) The San Francisco 49ers select Missouri OLB/DE Robert Quinn
When you think of ‘9ers defense, you think of Patrick Willis, toughness, run-stuffing and solid tackling, but you don’t think pass rush. The ‘9ers don’t put much fear into their opponents with their ability to rush the passer, and that is why Quinn will be the pick here.
Quinn would have been already gone by the time San Fran picks, if he had played last year. He had an excellent season in 2009 and was projected before the start of the 2010 collegiate season to be a top-three pick.
His skills off the edge are exactly what the 49ers need to add to their hard-nose defense. Quinn can explode off the line of scrimmage better than most and has an innate ability to get horizontal under the reach of an opposing tackle and get to the quarterback. He’s athletic enough to stand up and play the outside position, within the linebacker unit of a 3-4. He also showcases the perfect build for the position.
8) The Tennessee Titans select Missouri QB Blain Gabbert
The Titans will stop Gabbert’s shallow fall in the first round by taking the Mizzou quarterback with their No. 8 overall pick. The Vince Young era has already been declared over, and I’m sure the Titans are anxious to move on.
Unless Tennessee trades out of this slot with another team, which would like to have Gabbert, I can’t see the Titans passing on him. Much like the Falcons’ desire to quickly get over the loss of Michael Vick by drafting Matt Ryan, I think the Titans are anxious to find the future of their organization.
Gabbert brings a good arm and impressive mobility to the table. Coming from a spread formation, he’ll need time to adapt under center, especially considering the state of the NFL and the possible diminishment of the remaining offseason workouts. But having a future with a quarterback in their back pocket should give the team and their fans something to look forward to.
9) The Dallas Cowboys select USC OT Tyron Smith
This pick should be a tackle no matter what. The image of Tony Romo lying on the ground grabbing his broken collarbone is reasoning enough. If Jerry Jones wants to win, he better keep Romo upright.
Smith has been lauded by Monte Kiffin for his untapped potential. He may need to get stronger and heavier, but if the Cowboys draft him they could use him on the edge of the line immediately.
Marc Columbo and Doug Free aren’t making a visit to the Pro Bowl anytime soon.
10) The Washington Redskins select Alabama WR Julio Jones
The Redskins currently lack pass-catchers outside of their tight ends. Santana Moss is set to hit free agency and Jones could possibly enter Week One at No. 1 on the depth chart. Getting someone to throw the ball to Jones would be a good idea as well, but taking Locker at this point would be too risky.
Donavon McNabb is almost certainly receiving an early release from his tenure with Washington, but Mike Shanahan seems to be content for the time being with Rex Grossman as his starter. Jones has the physical characteristics that offensive coordinators salivate over. He’s big, tall and fast with good ball skills and the ability to block downfield. The Redskins have plenty of needs to fill, but wide receiver/playmaker is definitely one of them.
11) The Houston Texans select Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara
This is a tough pick with Missouri OLB/DE Aldon Smith still on the board. But let’s face it, the Texans were burnt through the air by everyone last season, because their secondary could not cover.
A boost in the pass rush would have helped, but solid coverage would have done more. A pass rush wasn’t going to help stop Mark Sanchez' fade down the sideline to Braylon Edwards in the final minute of the game against the Jets last season. The Texans needed better coverage on that play. Corners provide coverage.
12) The Detroit Lions select Colorado CB Jimmy Smith
The story with the Texans is the same one with the Lions. The Lions need corners because their guys can’t cover. The game against the Patriots on Thanksgiving '10 was atrocious. Simply getting another body to bump Alfonzo Smith out of the starting lineup would be enough to improve their secondary immensely.
Besides that fact, Smith is an incredible athlete at the position. He has great size and speed, and talk of his character is getting quieter and quieter. He’s a great talent and a great addition to the ascending Lions’ defense.
13) The Minnesota Vikings select Washington QB Jake Locker
The Vikings have put off attaining a quarterback for the future for far too long. Leslie Frazier is adamant that his team will add a quarterback in this draft. However, if it’s not in the first round, then they really aren’t as serious as they claim to be in regards to finding a franchise quarterback.
Sure they can sign McNabb if they really want to, but they should sure they don’t leave the first round without a quarterback. Though taking Locker this early is a bit of a risk, they can’t risk not getting him later by trading back in the first round. Just take him.
14) The St. Louis Rams select Missouri OLB/DE Aldon Smith
What a gift this would be for Steve Spagnola’s defense. Smith is a supreme pass rusher who could have been chosen much earlier than this, but he wasn’t. Pairing Smith with the improving Chris Long will give the Rams a formidable pass rush that, along with Sam Bradford, will help them win their division with (gasp!) a better than .500 record!
15) The Miami Dolphins select Florida C/G Mike Pouncey
The Dolphins have success in the AFC East when they run the ball effectively. Attaining a strong presence at center or next to Jake Long at guard will go a long way to restoring the dominant rushing attack they had a few years ago. Mark Ingram would be tempting, but backs are a dime a dozen.
16) The Jacksonville Jaguars select Clemson DE Daquan Bowers
There's definitely something wrong with Bowers’ knee, but whether it’s a long-term injury or not is anybody’s guess. If he’s simply falling because of concern about his knee or about his ability to play in 201, I think his fall will stop with the Jaguars. If these concerns persist, he may very well fall out of the first round and then who knows where he’ll end up.
Jacksonville has been searching for a legitimate pass-rushing defensive end for a long time and have used a lot of high draft picks recently on guys that haven’t panned out. Bowers, if healthy, could solve all their pass-rushing problems. I think at No. 11, they may take a chance with him. He could be a stud.
17) The New England Patriots select California DE Cameron Jordan
Good fortune has struck the Pats as the two top 3-4 defensive ends, J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, have fallen to them. If this were indeed the case, I think they go with Jordan as Watt isn’t the athlete that Jordan is.
18) The San Diego Chargers select Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt
As good fortune would have it, the second-best 3-4 defensive will fall to the Chargers. They have a solid end in Louis Castillo but ever since Igor Olshansky left for the Cowboys, they’ve had a void opposite Castillo on the line. Watt will start right away and bring a unique amount of energy for a big man to the field.
19) The New York Giants select Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi
Back-to-back Badgers are selected as the G-Men nab Carimi. I think NY has had its fill of selecting defensive ends high in the draft. They're looking for someone to bring a bit more nastiness to the offensive line.
Carimi is a Tom Coughlin pick all the way. A tough road grader with a bit of a temper will allow the Giants to continue to dominate in the run game within their division. The Eagles and Cowboys prefer to keep the ball in the air, while the Redskins haven’t really decided what to do, but the Giants know they want to run the ball. Carimi just makes sense here.
20) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan
The Bucs picked a defensive tackle at the top of the first two rounds in last year’s draft, and they'll continue to remake their defensive line with the excellent addition of Kerrigan. He’ll fight every snap to the whistle and his ability to shed blockers will help him transition to the NFL. He’ll also get one-on-one matchups, with Gerald McCoy on the inside taking on the double team. So the possibility of recording double-digit sacks in his rookie year is not out of the question, if the playoff-caliber Bucs take him here.
21) The Kansas City Chiefs select Baylor NT Phil Taylor
The Chiefs are improving on defense and getting a guy with Taylor’s size at the nose tackle position is a must for their 3-4 defense to really work well.
In a draft that lacks a lot of prototypical blocker-eating nose tackles, Taylor is far and away the best prospect at his position. The Chiefs would do well with him, as he would allow their linebackers to roam.
22) The Indianapolis Colts select Temple DT Muhammad Wilkerson
The Colts get a guy who would be a top-10 pick in next year’s draft, according to some scouts and analysts. He’s impressively athletic for his size (ran the 40 in under five seconds) and could give the Colts the disruptive force in the middle of their defensive line that they’ve been longing for but have yet to spend a first round pick on in recent drafts.
23) The Philadelphia Eagles select Boston College OT Anthony Castonzo
This is a fortunate find by the Eagles. Their offensive line was pretty bad at times last year, with Jason Peters frequently injured and their right tackle position in disarray. Castonzo would come in at right tackle and start immediately.
24) The New Orleans Saints select Alabama RB Mark Ingram
This pick makes all the sense in the world for the Saints. They were in desperate need of a healthy back to rely on at the end of the season last year and in the playoffs. Ingram is the bell cow back they need. It’s the one piece of their offense that’s missing. With Ingram, the Saints’ offense could be scary. RBs are a dime-a-dozen though.
25) The Seattle Seahawks select Illinois DT Corey Liuget
The Seahawks could use a quarterback, possibly Christian Ponder, but they also acquired Charlie Whitehurst just a year ago and at least need to see what they have with him. He showed promise in the last game of the season against the Rams, a game Seattle won, which helped them win division and a spot in the playoffs. In the meantime, the Seahawks can fill a need they have along the defensive line with Liuget, who’s been rising up draft boards as a very impressive three-technique prospect.
26) The Baltimore Ravens select Texas DB Aaron Williams
Some believe Williams will be a great safety, but why not try him out at corner first. Baltimore could sure use one. How they were able to ignore their obvious deficiency at the position last year and still make the playoffs is beyond me. I thought teams would be able to throw all over them, though the Steelers did eventually do them in through the air. Williams seems like the perfect fit for the Ravens on the outside with his tough, run-supporting, strong-tackling, aggressive play. Maybe they could use him to eventually take over at FS for Ed Reed in the near future.
27) The Atlanta Falcons select Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn
Though John Abraham is still playing at a high level, adding Clayborn to the Falcons’ defensive line could possibly prevent another thrashing via the pass game like the Packers gave them in the playoffs, in their house no less.
Their secondary is fairly good, with Curtis Lofton in the middle. So improving the defensive line looks to be the way to go, unless they are thinking about picking Kyle Rudolph to replace the aging Tony Gonzalez?
28) The New England Patriots TRADE their pick to the Arizona Cardinals who select Florida State QB Christian Ponder
Let’s face it, the Pats aren’t keeping this pick and there’s a bunch of teams clambering to get back into the first round to get a quarterback. The Cardinals will make it happen and get their guy and will sign Larry Fitzgerald to his extension soon after, with a clause that requires the Cardinals to add a 2011 first-round quarterback to the team roster.
29) The Chicago Bears select Colorado OT Nate Solder
The Bears get a gift with the full-of-potential Solder dropping to them this late in the first round. Bears’ Jay Cutler was sacked a ton and received unwarranted criticism following his absence from the second half of the NFC championship game due to injury. But really, the criticism should have gone to the offensive line. He was pummeled in that game’s first half, and struggled to get sufficient protection all season long (see the Giants nine first-half sacks on him last season, yeeeesh).
30) The New York Jets select Pittsburgh WR Jonathan Baldwin
To protect themselves in case they lose Edwards and Santonio Holmes in free agency, the Jets take Baldwin and give their franchise quarterback some more help in the passing game. Baldwin is a downfield threat, much like Edwards, but with better size and less of the “DOH” drops. The Jets would be wise to keep Holmes though.
31) The Pittsburgh Steelers select Baylor OG Danny Watkins
Watkins is a Steel City kind of player. A tough, no-nonsense gritty interior player, Watkins could team up next to Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey to create a formidable duo on combo blocks in the middle. Though corner would be a good position to fill here, the value just isn’t there. The Steelers have do well to pick the best player available in previous drafts, so reaching for a corner would be uncharacteristic.
32) The Green Bay Packers select Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward
The Packers will lose Cullen Jenkins to free agency and depth along the defensive line is important, especially since the defensive line for the Packers has been decimated every season by injury. GM Ted Thompson is right in saying “you can never have too many big men,” and in a draft year where defensive lineman are good and plentiful, it would be wise to get in on the talent pool. When in any other year, Heyward would be long gone by the 32 overall pick.
Getting offensive lineman to protect Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers would be ideal, but like the Steelers, the Packers draft the best available under the wise direction of Thompson. So they won’t reach for a tackle or guard when a five-technique as talented as Heyward is staring them in the face.