Who will win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes?
That is what the 2011 NFL season basically boils down to. Yes, a Super Bowl champion will be crowned, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, anxious eyes will endure a 17-week-long battle for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Luck, by all accounts, is a sure-fire No. 1 overall pick. Analysts said the same thing about Jake Locker before the 2011 NFL draft, but Luck is different; Luck is special. Luck will go first unless the team that’s pegged with the No. 1 pick already has a very good, young quarterback on the roster—which is a high possibility.
Teams not needing a quarterback could line the top of the first round this year, but we will also see teams with established left tackles sitting atop the NFL draft—which is bad news for two of the best left tackle prospects in years, Matt Kalil (USC) and Jonathan Martin (Stanford).
So how will the draft play out? We've taken our NFL power rankings and used them as the order for the first round. Here's how it looks.
“With the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Seattle Seahawks select...”
Are the Seattle Seahawks the least talented team in the NFL? Absolutely not, and they definitely don’t play in the toughest division. There’s just something about them that screams underachievers.
The consolation prize—and please remember this when commenting—is that Seattle will be able to draft the best quarterback prospect ever. Yes, ever.
Luck is the perfect combination of smarts, strength, mobility and poise. Any team drafting him will be lucky (no pun intended) to have him.
The Tennessee Titans are a young team loaded with talent on the offensive and defensive lines and definitely at running back. They also have rookie quarterback Jake Locker, so they’re at least committed to someone at the position for now.
This leaves Tennessee in a position to simply draft the best available player. That player is Alshon Jeffery.
Jeffery is a big, powerful receiver with great deep speed and hands to go up and get the ball. Teamed with Kenny Britt, Jeffery would give the Titans a legitimate passing threat.
The Cleveland Browns are heading in the right direction, but playing in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions with a young quarterback and a revamped defense will keep the Browns selecting in the top five next year.
Quinton Coples is the type of defensive end who should excite Browns fans. He’s a great athlete and an exceptional pass-rusher and has the size/speed combination to create matchup problems coming off the right end in a 4-3 defense.
Coples would team with 2011 rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard to give Cleveland a damn good defensive line to build around.
Trent Richardson fans may cry about this one, but Knile Davis would be the best running back in college football right now had his ankle not exploded in August practice. Getting Richardson will be no consolation prize for Cincinnati Bengal fans, though—he’s the real deal.
Richardson’s rare mix of speed, size, strength and agility will remind fans of what Chris Johnson is doing to NFL opponents in Tennessee.
The junior running back has talent unlike any we have seen at the college football level in some time. Richardson could be the best all-around runner to enter the league since another SEC running back, Darren McFadden.
If it weren’t for Andrew Luck, we would be talking about Landry Jones as the best quarterback in college football and the preseason favorite to go No. 1 overall.
Instead, Jones may have to settle for a Heisman Trophy and national championship this season.
Should Jones decide to leave Oklahoma early, he could create a potential situation where quarterbacks are drafted with the first two picks in the 2012 NFL draft.
The Buffalo Bills are intending to use Ryan Fitzpatrick for the 2011 season, and while I do like Fitzpatrick’s moxie, he’s not a franchise quarterback. Fitzpatrick will never lead the Bills to a Super Bowl. Landry Jones could.
Justin Blackmon is one hell of a wide receiver. It is impossible to argue against his production at Oklahoma State or his raw ability. Blackmon is simply incredible to watch.
Wide receivers have seen their value rise as of late in the NFL, and Blackmon’s comparisons to guys like Andre Johnson and Roddy White will have NFL general managers excited.
In Carolina, Blackmon would team with Steve Smith and tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey to give Cam Newton an excellent cast of pass-catchers to grow with.
How can the San Francisco 49ers return to respectability? One easy answer is to rebuild their defense to scare the living daylights out of the talented passers in the NFC West.
The 49ers used the No. 7 overall pick in 2011 on pass-rusher Aldon Smith. In 2012 they can add to the group with another athletic pass-rusher when they select Donte Paige-Moss from North Carolina.
A lanky, lean athlete with amazing burst, Paige-Moss is the type of pass-rusher who projects very well to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
If the 49ers hope to duplicate the Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers defense, they will need a solid pass-rusher coming off both edges.
The Washington Redskins may plan to use John Beck and Rex Grossman in 2011, but if so, it will be because they know they can draft a true franchise quarterback in the first round of the 2012 draft.
Matt Barkley will be as NFL-ready as they come after spending three years at USC. He’s accurate with great footwork and field vision.
Andrew Luck and Landry Jones are both exceptional, but Barkley is as well. All three quarterbacks could easily be drafted in the first five picks of the draft next year.
The Denver Broncos move from a 3-4 defense to the 4-3 preferred by John Fox, but it will not be an easy transition. Drafting an outside linebacker with their first pick in the 2012 draft will definitely help.
Teaming Zach Brown with Von Miller and D.J. Williams would give Denver the most feared linebacker unit outside of Pittsburgh. The athleticism and playmaking ability of the three would cover up weaknesses at defensive tackle and in the secondary while Denver continues to reload.
The Miami Dolphins may already have one of the best left tackles in the NFL in Jake Long, but what they do not have is a quality right tackle.
Miami would be salivating at the prospect of a top-five player falling to it here. Matt Kalil has been a career left tackle at USC, but he has the overall athletic ability and strength to easily make the move from the left side to the right side and do well.
It’s worth noting that most tackles do well in moving from left to right tackle; it’s when you try to move a player from right to left that problems start popping up.
The Oakland Raiders are desperate for a franchise left tackle to settle a position that’s been in flux for the last eight years.
Jonathan Martin will barely have to move from from Palo Alto to Oakland, where he’ll become a household name as one of the best left tackles in football.
Martin is well versed in a pro-style blocking system, and he’s athletic enough to handle pass-rushing right ends and outside linebackers.
In the actual 2012 NFL draft, it would be a shocker if Martin falls out of the top 10. In fact, he’s rated as my No. 2 overall player this preseason. However, the way the board falls here pushes him out of the top 10.
Vontaze Burfict happens to be one of my favorite players in college football right now. He’s a violent tackler, an able cover-man from the middle of the field and one of the best run-stuffers in college today. He is, in my opinion, the best linebacker in college football.
Burfict could line up at any of the four linebacker positions in the Arizona Cardinals’ hybrid 3-4 defense. He would be a great opposite at outside linebacker, where his speed and aggression could help replace veteran Joey Porter after the 2011 season.
Burfict will be a steal for any team picking him up, especially if he lasts until pick No. 12.
Continuing to improve on defense will be the priority for the Minnesota Vikings offseason in 2012. Step one is drafting a young cornerback who can step in for Antoine Winfield as his career ends.
Alfonzo Dennard was overshadowed at Nebraska by Prince Amukamara, but he shouldn’t have been. Watching the two head to head on film, Dennard looks like the better NFL prospect.
That’s high praise considering Amukamara was the No. 19 pick in the 2011 draft.
The St. Louis Rams have been brilliant at drafting to improve the overall talent of their roster. During the 2011 offseason they have also been smart at adding key free agents to complement the drafted talent.
Expect more of the same next summer as the Rams look to get better at defensive tackle and cornerback through the draft.
Both cornerback and defensive tackle will be loaded with talent next year, and our best player available at the No. 14 spot is also our No. 1 defensive tackle. Jerel Worthy is a great fit for the penetrating defensive systems used by Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis. He will be able to step in as a three-technique tackle immediately.
The Alabama Crimson Tide will feature a defense that is absolutely loaded with future NFL players. The best of that group just might be cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
Known for his aggressive man-cover skills and ability to close on the ball, Kirkpatrick will be a great addition in Jacksonville, where cornerbacks are needed in a hurry.
As the draft nears, look for Kirkpatrick to emerge as a potential top-10 pick.
The San Diego Chargers roster has taken a hit over the years as key free agents departed and high draft picks failed to live up to expectations.
One area of immediate concern is at linebacker, where the team is pinning its hopes on a second-round draft pick and a 34-year-old to man the middle of their 3-4 defense.
Luke Kuechly is arguably one of the best all-around football players in college today, but he’s been overshadowed at Boston College and nationally. That should all change this year, as Kuechly’s smart style of play and sure-thing tackling will bring his name national recognition.
The New York Giants do a great job of positioning themselves to draft the best player available each year from their big board. They did it in 2010 with Jason Pierre-Paul and again in 2011 with Prince Amukamara.
In 2012 they will pull the trigger on the best available player, but he’ll be able to step in and help immediately.
Riley Reiff is one of three elite tackle prospects we are watching for the first round of the 2012 draft. Reiff is a tough-nosed bookend tackle who will be a big upgrade over the existing tackles in the Giants locker room.
In Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers have a good duo at cornerback for the 2011 season with Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib, but both may be questionable for the 2012 season.
Barber turned 36 years old this year and has to be on his last legs in the NFL. Talib is awaiting a hearing on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after the season ends.
The status of both starters can easily be called “up in the air,” which is why the Buccaneers would be wise to invest an early draft pick in a cornerback.
The Detroit Lions have done a wonderful job building a defensive line that will be competitive against even the best offensive lines in the NFL. Now it’s time to build an offensive line to match.
Detroit is happy with Jeff Backus at left tackle, but with Backus almost 34 years old, it is time to start looking to the future. The Lions could also use an upgrade at all four remaining offensive line positions.
Drafting a versatile guard/tackle athlete like Kelechi Osemele gives Detroit the flexibility to plug him in at guard or right tackle immediately. Many have compared Osemele to former Virginia offensive lineman Branden Albert, who played guard in college and transitioned to left tackle in the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys have two pretty good cornerbacks already in Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins.
Both players are talented enough to hold up over the course of the season and won’t do anything to hurt Dallas’ chances of making the playoffs. They might not be good enough to really help Dallas’ chances either, though.
Newman and Jenkins can be seen as liabilities, especially in a 3-4 defense. It will be interesting to see how the two adapt this year and if the Dallas secondary is a strength or weakness on what should be a playoff team.
I badly wanted the Indianapolis Colts to draft a quarterback here, but there are not any other quarterbacks worth a first-round grade at this time. Keep an eye on Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M, though.
The Colts, if they do not draft Peyton Manning’s eventual replacement, will need to spend a draft pick on a defensive tackle, and they should do so early and often.
The Colts made a smart pick by drafting a left tackle in the first round of the 2011 draft after ignoring a position of need for at least three years. In 2012, they should draft to fix an error on the defensive line that’s been prevalent just as long.
The Houston Texans did a great job addressing needs in the 2011 draft and making draft picks to target those areas.
With the team moving to a 3-4 defense this year, the Texans used their first three picks improving the roster’s talent at defensive end, cornerback and outside linebacker. The 2012 draft should be more of the same.
Houston is hoping Mario Williams transitions well to outside linebacker and that rookie Brooks Reed does more than just look like Clay Matthews. Should either player struggle, Houston would be wise to check out Florida State’s stud pass-rusher Brandon Jenkins.
It’s conceivable that Jenkins will go much higher in the 2012 draft if he can follow up a dominant 2011 season with an equal performance.
The Chicago Bears would be taking a sizable risk here, but it could be worth it in the long run.
Cliff Harris is perhaps the most talented cornerback in college football—he’s certainly the most electric player lining up at cornerback these days. Built in the mold of 2011 NFL draftee Patrick Peterson, were it not for some off-field issues, Harris would be a top-five-pick contender.
As it is, Harris may be facing serious charges after being pulled over for driving 118 mph with the presence of marijuana in the car.
An honest disclaimer: I may be seriously underrating Cordy Glenn as of right now. Once the season starts, I plan to take a fresh look at him.
Glenn looks like the best guard in college football and maybe the best guard since Branden Albert was tearing apart defensive linemen at Virginia.
The Chiefs would love to find a replacement for Brian Waters, and Glenn’s power game would be a great complement to the agility of Rodney Hudson at center and Jon Asamoah at guard. Glenn is not just power, though; he’s also nimble enough to handle the zone-blocking scheme favored by the Chiefs.
* Pick acquired via trade during 2011 NFL draft
In New England, the Patriots seem to be moving to a 4-3 base defense, which means they will need to add more linebackers who are able to run from sideline to sideline and cover tight ends and running backs.
Bruce Irvin will be an intriguing pick for the New England Patriots with the selection they received in a trade with the New Orleans Saints during the 2011 draft.
Irvin is a classic outside linebacker with exceptional speed and the body to add 10 more pounds to an already chiseled frame.
The New York Jets knew they needed to add defensive linemen, so during the 2011 NFL draft they selected Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson. Their 2012 draft strategy should be similar.
The Jets will again need to add defensive ends for their 3-4 scheme, and Jared Crick just might be the best pure 3-4 defensive end available.
Crick will compare very well to 2011 first-rounder J.J. Watt, now of the Houston Texans. Their ability, size and work ethic are eerily similar.
How many years now have we been expecting the Baltimore Ravens to draft Ray Lewis’ replacement? Perhaps the 2012 draft will be the one where the Ravens finally acknowledge that Lewis may actually retire some time in the distant future.
The Ravens do need to think about a future without Lewis, and not just in terms of replacing an amazing leader, but in replacing their middle linebacker.
Lewis’ talent is all but irreplaceable, but Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower would be an impressive fit in Baltimore. He’s a versatile inside linebacker with the speed to terrorize the offense. His read-and-react ability is also very good, something a 3-4 inside ‘backer must have, first and foremost.
He’s also incredibly strong, something a 3-4 inside linebacker must be in order to hold up against guards and fullbacks.
* Pick acquired from Atlanta Falcons during 2011 NFL draft
If the Cleveland Browns are able to land Quinton Coples with their first pick and then follow that up with the selection of defensive tackle Josh Chapman later on, watch out.
Cleveland, as mentioned before, double-dipped to grab defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard in the 2011 draft. Put those two on a line with Coples and Chapman and the Browns defensive line would rival the best in the league.
Chapman has the look of a dominating three-technique defensive tackle, even if Alabama doesn’t choose to use him as one.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the talent to win a Super Bowl this season, but if one position will keep them from seeing their goal met, it is cornerback.
The team trusts Ike Taylor much more than I do, and outside of him it has little established talent. Pittsburgh did spend two 2011 selections on Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, but neither looks like a slam-dunk starter for the next decade.
Using its late first-round selection on a cornerback like Chase Minnifield, who has the height to match up against elite No. 1 wide receivers and also the ability to sink into a zone and close on the ball, would be a sweet pickup for the Dick LeBeau defense.
You might think that after a rampage through free agency and pulling off an impressive trade that netted them cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick, the Philadelphia Eagles would have few team needs.
Not so fast.
The Eagles are surprisingly inexperienced at linebacker, leaving the position a major question mark entering the season. Philadelphia could start two rookies, Casey Matthews and Brian Rolle, at linebacker this season.
While Matthews and Rolle are talented players, neither has the overall ability of Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw can play both inside and outside linebacker in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense and do it well.
Philadelphia could have as many as three openings at linebacker next year. Expect at least one to be filled through the draft.
This may be favoritism, but Lamar Miller is a beast. Keep him on a list of players to remember for the 2011 season.
Miller would fill a role that Ryan Grant is expected to fill in Green Bay this season as the Packers’ featured running back. James Starks and Alex Green are on the roster, but neither has the definite look of a workhorse running back.
Miller does. His combination of speed and power would shift the balance in Green Bay from an elite passing team to a well-rounded offense.
Who do you draft as the team that has everything?
That’s a very good question, and until the New England Patriots take the field and show some weaknesses, predicting who they will draft is just an educated guess.
The Patriots could use an upgrade at wide receiver, where Chad Ochocinco will fill the role of No. 1 for at least the 2011 season, but no clear No. 2 receiver is present.
Drafting Michael Floyd would allow New England to move Wes Welker to the slot full-time, where he is a matchup nightmare, and would let them use Julian Edelman and Taylor Price in four- and five-wide sets or as potential replacements for Ochocinco on the boundary.
Floyd has his own problems, including multiple alcohol-related offenses at Notre Dame, but if any head coach is willing to take on a troubled playmaker, it’s Bill Belichick.