The 2011 NFL draft has been kind to those lucky enough to hold an early draft pick. Cam Newton is the legitimate franchise quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Von Miller is playing like a veteran for the Denver Broncos and the Buffalo Bills' Marcel Dareus is already one of the most active 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. Good news all around.
Looking ahead, how will the early picks in the 2012 draft work out? Let's take a look at the first round of the 2012 class with just under six months left until the draft. Will Andrew Luck be the next Cam Newton? Can Alshon Jeffery have the impact of an A.J. Green?
Draft order taken from Week 6 NFL Power Rankings. Adjusted for NFC/AFC playoff outcomes.
Pick: Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford
The Indianapolis Colts may be better than their 0-5 record, especially if they had Peyton Manning under center, but their fans should be excited about the prospect of picking up the best draft prospect since No. 16 was running around at the University of Tennessee.
Andrew Luck, a redshirt junior at Stanford, would have been a Top 5 pick last year, and most likely the No. 1 overall pick above Cam Newton. He's good, to say the least.
The Colts may be tempted to look at positions that could support a Manning-led run to another title, but the smart move would be selecting a rare prospect in Luck.
NFL Comparison: Aaron Rodgers
Pick: Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, South Carolina
The St. Louis Rams missed out on the top wide receivers in the 2011 class, choosing instead to go after defensive end Robert Quinn. That move hasn't panned out like the team had hoped.
Quinn has exceptional potential, but without a go-to wide receiver the Ram offense has struggled and second-year quarterback Sam Bradford's development has slowed due to dropped passes and bad route running.
The fix in St. Louis, at least in the passing game, is easy. Give Bradford a big wide receiver who can stretch the field and he'll quickly show that he's still one of the best young quarterbacks in the game.
NFL Comparison: Andre Johnson
Pick: Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor
The Miami Dolphins plan to fix the issues that have led to zero wins so far this season must start on offense. The team has given quarterback Chad Henne three years to show he's capable of leading this team to the playoffs. So far he hasn't lived up to those hopes.
Henne is not alone in the blame, but a change is in order. The Dolphins need a spark to ignite the team and the fan base.
Step one will be bringing in a new head coach. Step two will be identifying a franchise quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft.
Griffin has a rare ability as a passer and runner. He has exceptional accuracy and touch, completing nearly 80 percent of his passes this season. He has also shown the arm strength to stretch the field. Oh, and he's one of the most electric running quarterbacks in the country.
NFL Comparison: Cam Newton
*There is no great comparison for Griffin in the NFL today. He's a mix between Michael Vick's running ability and Drew Brees' accuracy and mechanics. Somewhere in the middle is a Cam Newton-ish prospect.
Pick: Landry Jones, Quarterback, Oklahoma
I am not one of those people who thinks the answer to every problem is a change at quarterback. That being said, Matt Cassel has failed to impress me.
Sure, Cassel is missing his tight end and one of the NFL's best running backs, but what was his excuse before Jamaal Charles went down? Cassel has struggled early this season without Charlie Weis there to help him.
Landry Jones would give Kansas City a great contingency plan for the future without Cassel. Jones runs a high-octane spread offense at Oklahoma that would translate well to Todd Haley's offense (assuming Haley keeps his job).
The biggest difference between Jones and Cassel is pocket presence. Cassel looks like a lost puppy when the pocket breaks down, while Jones makes good decisions and can even move a little outside the tackle box with his legs.
The Chiefs would also look at right tackles here, and maybe even a cornerback, but the 2012 class is heavy on quaterbacks and Kansas City would be foolish to pass on Jones at this point.
NFL Comparison: Matt Schaub
Pick: Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama
The Denver Broncos will have several options once the 2012 draft rolls around. The team could look at quarterbacks if Tim Tebow fails, or at cornerback to replace an aging Champ Bailey. The Broncos could also address an issue they thought they solved when drafting Knowshon Moreno at running back.
To date, Moreno has been underwhelming. Given multiple chances to succeed, Moreno hasn't produced. The Broncos will find themselves staring at an NFL-ready three down back when Alabama's Trent Richardson declares for the 2012 class.
Richardson is a true all-around back. He is college football's best runner, but he's also a proven receiver out of the backfield and a solid blocker on passing plays.
There is reason Mark Ingram was featured less during the 2010 season at Alabama. That reason was Richardson.
NFL Comparison: Darren McFadden
Pick: Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, USC
The Arizona Cardinals have been down this road before. With the No. 5 overall pick in the 2007 draft, the Cardinals were hoping to draft a tackle to protect then franchise quarterback Matt Leinart. They used the selection on Levi Brown.
Brown, like Leinart, has been a bust. Even though he's still starting at left tackle, Brown is arguably the worst left tackle in the league this season.
The Cardinals will hope things are better this time around.
Matt Kalil is a more proven prospect than Brown ever was. He's coming from a pro-style offense and has the technique and intelligence to immediately make an impact at left tackle.
NFL Comparison: Sebastian Volmer
Pick: Jonathan Martin, Offensive Tackle, Stanford
The Minnesota Vikings let long time starter Bryant McKinnie go this offseason after off-field issues and struggles with his weight. McKinnie landed in Baltimore, where he's slimmed down and playing sound football. Minnesota was left with has-beens at the position.
Jonathan Martin is the solution to the Vikings' problem at left tackle. An exceptional athlete at the position, Martin is a proven run blocker and pass protector, a rare combination for a draft prospect. Most rookies have to be coached up in one aspect of blocking, but Martin is a rock-solid prospect.
Protecting Andrew Luck's blindside for the last three seasons has Martin ready for the league. Playing under now NFL head coach Jim Harbaugh certainly helps.
NFL Comparison: Ryan Clady
Pick: Justin Blackmon, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
The Jacksonville Jaguars are better than their on-field performance this season. The team isn't far from competing.
The Jaguars have a good young quarterback in rookie Blaine Gabbert, and the offensive line is good enough to protect Gabbert and open holes for Maurice Jones-Drew. The problems start at wide receiver. Mike Thomas is a promising young talent, but he needs help.
In the Jacksonville offense a run-after-catch wide out will put the Jaguar offense over the top. Justin Blackmon is college football's most dangerous threat with the football in his hands.
Blackmon has the size and strength to power through defensive backs for the ball and is strong enough to break tackles as he runs away from defenders.
NFL Comparison: Hakeem Nicks
Pick: Matt Barkley, Quarterback, USC
The obvious analysis here is that Seattle Seahawk head coach Pete Carroll will use the team's first round pick on the quarterback he recruited to USC, Matt Barkley.
Barkley would be a good fit for the quarterback-needy Seahawks, and it helps that he's already familiar with the Carroll system.
You could also point out that Carroll has shied away from drafting his former USC players. He passed on Taylor Mays and didn't sign Matt Leinart when he had the chance. Barkley is on a level far above what either Mays or Leinart were capable of.
NFL Comparison: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Pick: Morris Claiborne, Cornerback, LSU
The Carolina Panthers will be a trendy pick to make the playoffs following the 2012 season, but to go from where they are right now to a playoff contender, they need help on defense.
The Panthers would love to find a top-tier defensive tackle here, but no player in this class is worthy (right now) of such a high draft pick. The back up plan would be to add a shutdown cornerback to solidify the secondary.
Claiborne has been the best cover man in college this season. Even as a slightly undersized player, Claiborne is showing the ability to lock horns with the best wide receivers. He's even coming up in run support.
That's the kind of heart the Panthers need on defense.
NFL Comparison: Joe Haden
Pick: Vontaze Burfict, Linebacker, Arizona State
The Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to field the best team money could buy this season, instead they are 1-4 and on the verge of an insurmountable climb back into contention. It won't be too much longer until fans in Philly are looking forward to 2012.
Make no doubt about it, the Eagles have a talented roster. The focus of the 2012 offseason will be adding help on the offensive line and finding a middle linebacker to lead the defense.
Over the last decade of scouting college football players, I haven't seen a middle linebacker with the raw ability of Vontaze Burfict. His aggressive style of play is contagious, and, once unleashed on the NFL, he will have a huge impact early in his first season.
The Eagles need a quick answer at middle linebacker. Burfict will be a 10-year solution.
NFL Comparison: Patrick Willis
Pick: Riley Reiff, Offensive Tackle, Iowa
The Cleveland Browns have improved from their 2010 season until now, but they aren't quite ready to compete in the AFC North.
With two selections in Round 1, the Browns can address their needs and add two cornerstone players to the roster.
First up will be rounding out the offensive line by adding a right tackle that can stand up opposite Joe Thomas. Riley Reiff is a Big 10 bred tackle with NFL tools. He could step in at left or right tackle today in the Browns' offense.
NFL Comparison: Eric Winston
Pick: Jared Crick, Defensive End, Nebraska
The New York Jets have a number of directions they could go with their first round pick in the 2012 draft.
The team could easily look at running back, wide receiver, right tackle or outside linebacker. They could also make a move that would anchor their defensive line for their four annual games against Tom Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Jared Crick is the 2012 draft's best 3-4 defensive end prospect. Coming from Nebraska, Crick has played both end and tackle and has the body style and strength to match up against right tackles in the NFL in the Jets' three-man front.
The way this pick goes for the Jets is all about how the board plays out. If a wide receiver or outside linebacker prospect is here, the Jets would be wise to take a long look at them.
NFL Comparison: J.J. Watt
Pick: Manti Te'o, Linebacker, Notre Dame
The Cleveland Browns held the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, but they sent that pick to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for a package that included the Falcons' first round pick this season. No one expected that pick to be this high up the board.
With their second pick in the round, the Browns can finish what they started last year and make a selection to round out a young defense.
The Browns will be faced with a decision to make on D'Qwell Jackson's future with the club. Whether Jackson stays or not, the Browns need help at linebacker.
Manti Te'o has the athleticism to play either inside or outside linebacker for the Browns in their 4-3 defense. He would ideally line up in the middle, but if Cleveland can keep Jackson and move Te'o to the weakside, they would do it.
NFL Comparsion: Jerod Mayo
Pick: Lamar Miller, Running Back, Miami (FL)
The Cincinnati Bengals cannot know what the future holds for running back Cedric Benson. Benson signed a one-year deal before the season, but now he may miss time due to a suspension handed down by the league. Benson has had his issues off the field, but he's been an otherwise solid running back on the field.
The Bengals will be looking at running backs this offseason, and once they see Lamar Miller, they'll be hooked.
Miller is fast as hell, no one in college football hits the hole as hard as Miller does from the backfield. He's also a dangerous receiver and capable return man.
Miller may not be quite at the level of a Trent Richardson just yet, but he's also one year younger and less experienced. A look at their NFL potential is comparable.
NFL Comparison: LeSean McCoy
Pick: Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame
I have not been the biggest fan of Michael Floyd, largely because of his off-field problems, but there is no doubting the kid can play.
Floyd would be Jay Cutler's best friend in Chicago. The Bears have made many failed attempts over the years to find a true No. 1 wide receiver (David Terrell, anyone?), but all have failed. Floyd will be the exception to the rule for the Bears.
A big, solid receiver with the speed to separate from defenders, Floyd is game ready. He will be an exciting playmaker in the Mike Martz offense.
NFL Comparison: Dez Bryant
Pick: Melvin Ingram, Defensive End, South Carolina
The 2012 draft class lacks one thing: a true threat at defensive end. Melvin Ingram just might be that player.
Take away those players who will move to outside linebacker in the NFL and Ingram is 2012's best hope for a stud defensive end. As it happens, those players are in serious demand right now.
Ingram entered the season as second fiddle to teammate Devin Taylor, but so far this season he's outplayed Taylor. Hands down. Ingram is a player to keep an eye on as the draft season heats up.
The Titans need an end with Ingram's potential to replace the production lost when Jason Babin fled for Philadelphia. The team has a future star in tackle Jurrell Casey. Putting Ingram next to him would be amazing.
NFL Comparison: Trent Cole
Pick: Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, South Carolina
The Dallas Cowboys have two cornerbacks on the roster who have had previous success, but neither is a great fit in the Rob Ryan 3-4 defense. What the team needs is a physical cornerback who can excel in press coverage and also step up against the run.
That's pretty much Stephon Gilmore, and then some.
Gilmore is a solid, stout player, and is more than willing to come up in run support and take on physical receivers. He'll be a great addition for Ryan's defense.
NFL Comparison: Leon Hall
Pick: Cordy Glenn, Offensive Lineman, Georgia
The Pittsburgh Steelers have massive problems along the offensive line. Outside of center Maurkice Pouncey, the entire offensive line could be overhauled.
The team is high on right tackle Max Gilbert, who has looked solid in his rookie season. Veterans Willie Colon, Max Starks and Jonathan Scott could all be replaced at tackle. The situation at guard is just as bad.
Cordy Glenn has experience at guard and tackle in the SEC. Much like Branden Albert during his days at Virginia, Glenn has the athleticism and skill to stick at tackle once he's in the NFL.
Worst case scenario, Glenn plays left guard and becomes a damn fine player there.
NFL Comparison: Branden Albert
Pick: Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback, Alabama
Ronde Barber is 36 years old. The end of a great career will be coming very soon, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to be smart in replacing him with a draft pick this season. No exceptions.
Dre Kirkpatrick may have his ups and downs as a cover man, but in a pure zone system like the Buccaneers run, Kirkpatrick would be just fine.
What Dre Kirkpatrick brings to the table is exceptional size, top notch speed and the length to make plays on the ball. The Buccaneers, who have very few holes, need this.
NFL Comparison: Chris Gamble
Pick: Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback, North Alabama
The New York Giants have a roster ready to make the playoffs and then do some damage. What they need is help in the secondary and on the offensive line. Unfortunately, the draft's best late first-round tackle (Andrew Datko) was just ruled out for the rest of the season after re-injuring his shoulder.
That leaves the Giants in a great position to address a need at cornerback.
The team has Aaron Ross and Corey Webster, and while both have been very good at times, they have also been very bad at times. Ross is a keeper, Webster is not.
Janoris Jenkins has had his problems off the field. He was dismissed from Florida after multiple drug related arrests and then enrolled at North Alabama, where he is shining against weaker competition. The fact is, Jenkins can play at a high level. He proved that last season at Florida.
If Jenkins can get his act together off the field, he'll be a rock-star cover man in the NFL.
NFL Comparison: Vontae Davis
Pick: David DeCastro, Offensive Guard, Stanford
The Washington Redskins are a surprise leader of the NFC East right now, and they are doing it with a strong running game and a sound offensive line.
Trent Williams (LT), Kory Lichtensteiger (LG) and Will Montgomery (C) are the building blocks the team needs to become an annual playoff contender. Chris Chester (RG) and Jamaal Brown (RT)...not so much.
Chester has been one of the worst starting guards in the NFL this season, rounding out what is a very weak right side of the line. A fix will come in the name of David DeCastro.
DeCastro comes from an NFL blocking system at Stanford and is the type of athletic, mobile guard Mike Shanahan has built his teams around in the past.
NFL Comparison: Jahri Evans
Pick: Cliff Harris, Cornerback, Oregon
Al Davis may be gone in Oakland, but the Raiders will still fall in love with speedy cornerbacks. They don't come much speedier than Cliff Harris.
An athletic playmaker at the position, Harris is a capable cover man and returner in the mold of 2011 No. 5 overall pick Patrick Peterson.
The Raiders lost Nnamdi Asomugha before the season, leaving them a little thin at cornerback. The team will look to add at the position with their first pick in this year's draft. If they can land Harris they will have a proven cover man who can help at returner early on.
NFL Comparison: Patrick Peterson
Pick: Ronnell Lewis, Outside Linebacker, Oklahoma
A college defensive end with outstanding pass rush ability, Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis will be a welcome addition opposite Shaun Phillips. The team hoped they had that answer when they drafted Larry English, but up until now, he hasn't played like a first round pick.
Lewis, who had an injury scare last season, is healthy now and wreaking havoc on Big 12 offenses. If you need any evidence to Lewis' ability, pop in film from the 2011 Red River Rivalry against Texas and you will see a pass rusher extraordinaire.
Lewis isn't ready to drop into coverage, but he is ready to attack the quarterback. Playing with Shaun Phillips on the other side, that's all the San Diego Chargers need.
NFL Comparison: LaMarr Woodley
Pick: Alameda Ta'Amu, Nose Tackle, Washington
The Houston Texans move to a 3-4 defense has been aided greatly by the play of Antonio Smith and rookie J.J. Watt this season. To make this defensive line truly special, the Texans need a nose tackle.
Alameda Ta'Amu is the 2012 class' best nose tackle prospect. He has the body type, strength and leverage to make an immediate impact in the zero technique position on Wade Phillips' defense.
Ta'Amu has made a name for himself with his ability to strong-arm offensive linemen in the Pac-12. He's quickly moving up draft boards.
NFL Comparison: Casey Hampton
Pick: Nick Toon, Wide Receiver, Wisconsin
The San Francisco 49ers roster looks set at wide receiver, but getting in and looking at the production of each player leaves a lot to be desired.
Michael Crabtree was a Top 10 draft pick, but he's been a constant disappointment and has barely contributed this season after missing time with an ankle injury. Same for Braylon Edwards, signed this offsesason to complement Crabtree. Josh Morgan looked like the best receiver on the team, but now he's out with an injury.
The 49ers need help at receiver now. With Edwards' contract expiring and further proof that Crabtree is a bust, the team will look at the available receivers.
Nick Toon has NFL pedigree, size and speed. He's been an impressive star on a Wisconsin offense that is generally built around the run game. Toon's stock is soaring.
NFL Comparison: Brandon Marshall
Pick: Donte Paige-Moss, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, North Carolina
The biggest surprise of the 2011 season has been the play of the Buffalo Bills. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is showing that the promise he displayed last season was no fluke, and, with an improved wide receiver corp, he is tearing up the NFL.
How can the Bills go from surprise team to contender? Fielding a defense that is as good as their offense.
Buffalo would potentially look at offensive tackle here, but the team is getting enough production at the position and, honestly, there are no players worthy of the pick at tackle.
One player who could help is Donte Paige-Moss of North Carolina. The Tar Heel plays defensive end now, but would transition well to a pass rushing position in the hybrid defense the Bills love to use.
NFL Comparison: Mario Williams
Pick: Courtney Upshaw, Linebacker, Alabama
One thing I have learned about Bill Belichick over the years is that he loves to draft players from colleges that employ his favorite coaches. A favorite coach of Belichick's is Nick Saban.
Saban has one hell of a crop this season, and linebacker Courtney Upshaw just might be the best defender of the group.
A versatile linebacker able to play inside or outside, Upshaw would be an ideal fit for the New England Patriots' defensive fronts. The Patriots love to flip between a two, three and four-man front. They can do that because of linebackers like Upshaw that are able to play at defensive end or line up at middle linebacker.
NFL Comparison: James Harrison
Pick: Quinton Coples, Defensive End, North Carolina
The New England Patriots used the pick they received as part of a trade with the New Orleans Saints to add a versatile linebacker. Their second pick will be used on a defensive lineman who can do the same.
Outside of Mark Anderson and Vince Wilfork, the Patriots' defensive line has been disappointing. The team hoped for more from defensive ends Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis and Jermaine Cunningham. Now is the time to draft a defensive end who can step in at right defensive end for the next decade.
Quinton Coples has played both defensive tackle and end at UNC, and he brings the size and athleticism that Bill Belichick would love to have on the defensive line. Coples is a match-up nightmare with his tools and athleticism.
NFL Comparison: Julius Peppers
Pick: Alfonzo Dennard, Cornerback, Nebraska
The Detroit Lions are 5-0 thanks to the production of draft choices like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Jahvid Best and Ndamukong Suh. All were first round picks. The Lions can hope their 2012 choice plays as well.
With their pick in the first round this year, the Lions will look at two positions: offensive tackle and cornerback.
Detroit could reach for an offensive tackle here, but there is not a player worth reaching for. At cornerback, the Lions would find an NFL-ready starter in Alfonzo Dennard.
Dennard has had an iffy season coming off injury, but his 2010 film is better than 2011 first-round pick and Nebraska teammate Prince Amukamara.
NFL Comparison: Dunta Robinson
Pick: Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Boston College
It is simply amazing that, at age 36, Ray Lewis is still one of the top two inside linebackers in the NFL. He's a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer when the time comes.
If the Baltimore Ravens play up to expectations and make the Super Bowl, it's very likely Lewis will ride off into the sunset, ending a brilliant career. If that happens, Baltimore will be hurting.
While no one can replace Lewis immediately, the team will draft a linebacker to learn under him and ease the pain of losing Ray to retirement.
Luke Kuechly is the most sound tackler the 2012 class has to offer. He's a bit undersized, but that could work well in the Ravens' hybrid defense. There's no doubting his ability to get to the ball.
NFL Comparison: Navorro Bowman
Pick: Brandon Jenkins, Outside Linebacker, Florida State
The worst rated 3-4 outside linebacker, per Pro Football Focus, is Green Bay Packer Erik Walden. That says quite a bit about what position the Packers will target in the 2012 draft.
Green Bay is loaded to make another serious run at the Super Bowl this season, and next, assuming Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews are healthy. To win multiple rings, Green Bay needs a difference maker opposite Matthews who can draw attention away from the other playmakers on defense.
Brandon Jenkins is lining up at defensive end for Florida State, but he's an outside linebacker in the NFL. Jenkins has impressed throughout the entire season, solidifying himself as a first-round prospect for teams looking at pass rushers for the 3-4 defense.
NFL Comparison: Cameron Wake