The NFL season is far from over for some lucky fans, but others are already looking ahead to the 2012 NFL draft and wondering how the front office can take their team from pretender to contender.
One draft pick, good or bad, can change the fortunes of a franchise. The Indianapolis Colts made the right call for Peyton Manning in 1998, transforming the Colts from a bottom-feeder to a Super Bowl champion. Will lightning strike twice for Indianapolis, or will they find a Ryan Leaf this time around?
One full round of NFL draft predictions are coming your way now. The draft order is current through Week 11 and adjusted for playoffs.
The Indianapolis Colts may be better than their 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 five 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.
Forget talk that Luck may force an Eli Manning-like power play. Luck will be the top pick in the draft, no matter who has the selection.
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.
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.
Robert Griffin III has a rare ability as a passer and runner. He has exceptional accuracy and touch, completing nearly 75 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.
The Miami fans need reason to fill the seats, and the new head coach will need an elite quarterback. The Dolphins can kill two birds with one stone here. Look at what Cam Newton has done in Carolina—Griffin has the same ability, if not more.
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, like many first-round picks in St. Louis, 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. While some may want Justin Blackmon here, if the team re-signs Brandon Lloyd (I believe they will), Blackmon would be playing out of position. Jeffery gives the Rams a vertical threat and a RAC guy.
Remember, it was Rams' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels who dreamed up those plays to get Randy Moss open in New England. He'll find a similar threat in Jeffery.
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.
Matt Kalil 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 Kalil is a rock-solid prospect.
With Minnesota choosing to play Christian Ponder at quarterback for the remainder of the season, it’s possible the Vikings will be drafting much higher when the 2012 draft rolls around.
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.
With Jon Beason and Thomas Davis healthy next season and Claiborne in the fold, the Panthers will feature a scary 11 on defense.
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 the worst left tackle in the league this season. And that’s not just conjecture. Pro Football Focus ranks Brown as the worst tackle in the NFL this season.
The Cardinals will hope things are better this time around.
Jonathan Martin 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
The Washington Redskins have proven over the past few weeks just how badly they need a new quarterback. Rex Grossman and John Beck just can’t get it done.
Mike Shanahan has built a good offensive line and defense in Washington; now he needs his quarterback.
In the past, Shanahan has targeted athletic quarterbacks who can get outside the pocket and make plays. He likes players who aren’t afraid to take chances, but have the accuracy to pick apart a defense underneath. John Elway and Jay Cutler are his type of player.
Barkley may not be in the Elway-level of quarterbacks, but he’s as good a prospect as Cutler was when Shanahan nabbed him to be his starter in Denver.
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. The biggest question mark is his ability to separate from top cornerbacks, but with the right amount of coaching, he will be running away from them in no time.
Before anyone says anything, I know the Cleveland Browns have D’Qwell Jackson at middle linebacker. I know that Jackson is having one of the best seasons of any MIKE linebacker in the game. Take a deep breath.
Jackson’s contract expires after this season, and even if he’s signed, the Browns need help at outside linebacker. Vontaze Burfict is more than just an inside linebacker.
Burfict routinely lines up at outside linebacker in the ASU defense, particularly when they are facing three-receiver sets. He has the athleticism and speedy to make plays on the edge and help in pass coverage.
Whether it’s to team him up with Jackson or replace him, Burfict needs to be the pick for Cleveland.
The Seattle Seahawks are rolling with Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback this season, which is why they are drafting in the Top 10 picks. Finding a quarterback is the No. 1 priority of this offseason.
Landry Jones is the better quarterback prospect. He’s bigger, stronger and comes from a spread offense at Oklahoma that will position him well for an early starting gig in the NFL. He’s also head and shoulders above Jackson and Whitehurst when it matters most—the fourth quarter.
Jones isn’t the safe pick that Andrew Luck is, but he’s right there in the mix to be the second quarterback drafted this season. With three quarterbacks already selected, Seattle cannot afford to pass on a franchise passer again this year.
The Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to field the best team money could buy this season; instead, they are 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.
The Eagles need a quick answer at middle linebacker. Manti Te’o will be a 10-year solution.
Te’o is an exceptional athlete and a talented tackler. He has the ability to play either inside or outside linebacker in the Philadelphia defense, but with Trent Cole and Jason Babin crashing the edges, they’ll want him stopping runners in the middle.
The Kansas City Chiefs are getting excellent play from left tackle Branden Albert, but Barry Richardson has been horrible at right tackle this season. A replacement for Richardson is needed. And fast.
Riley Reiff is the type of big, nasty offensive tackle the Chiefs need to plug in at right tackle for the next decade. Reiff is Big 10 bred and ready to step in to the NFL as an impact starter.
The Chiefs 2011 draft class was a great one. If they can get equal production from Reiff, they will be well on their way back to the playoffs.
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.
Some will tell you a running back shouldn’t be drafted in the first round. I disagree. If you have a chance to get a young LaDainian Tomlinson or Marshall Faulk-esque prospect, you pull the trigger. 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.
*In the actual 2011 draft, with trades possible, Richardson should go much higher.
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.
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.
Among the biggest surprises 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 becoming a franchise quarterback.
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 Melvin Ingram of South Carolina. The Gamecock plays defensive end now, but would transition well to a pass rushing position in the hybrid defense the Bills love to use.
The New York Jets have so many needs, it would almost be easier to tell you what they don’t need. They won’t draft a quarterback, left tackle, middle linebacker or cornerback—that much is certain. Any other position is wide open.
The biggest need in New York is for a pass rusher. The team has struggled with free agent Calvin Pace and never got a return from Vernon Gholston or Bryan Thomas here. It’s time to try again.
Jenkins is a high-motor pass rusher who can get to the quarterback. With quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick in the division, New York needs someone who can get in the backfield.
The Alabama Crimson Tide defense has been among the best in the NCAA this season. A big reason for that is the play of Courtney Upshaw.
A one-time outside linebacker, Upshaw plays well in space and has the speed and flexibility to make a transition to full-time pass rusher in the Dallas Cowboys’ 3-4 defense. He's also shown the ability to line up inside and can blitz the A gaps.
Upshaw would replace former first-rounder Anthony Spencer, who has yet to live up to his high expectations.
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 an excellent No. 2 wide receiver opposite Kenny Britt in Tennessee. The acquisition of Floyd would open up the Titans’ offense, allowing Britt to shine and giving Chris Johnson more running room.
A big, solid receiver with the speed to separate from defenders, Floyd is game ready. He’ll be a long-time favorite of Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker.
The Detroit Lions are playoff contenders 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 line and cornerback.
Detroit could reach for an offensive tackle here, but there is not a player worth reaching for. Instead the team should look to the interior of their line and grab David DeCastro—a guard with 12-year potential on the right side.
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.
With their second of two first round picks in the 2012 class, the Cleveland Browns finish a project they started by drafting two defensive linemen last year.
The team has to be thrilled to find Coples here. The big defensive end from UNC will be an ideal fit at left defensive end, opposite 2011 rookie Jabaal Sheard. With Sheard, Coples and first-rounder Phil Taylor on the defensive line, the Browns have a defense to fear.
Coples will give the Brown defensive line something they lack—a long-armed defender who can stop the run and rush the passer.
As part of the trade that sent quarterback Carson Palmer to the Raiders, Cincinnati gets an extra first-rounder in 2012. They’ll be happy to use it improving their defense.
Using their extra first-rounder on a defensive end or cornerback would make the most sense. Cincinnati desperately lacks a presence at cornerback opposite Leon Hall, but with the way the board has shaped up here, there are few players worthy of a late-first round selection. There is a defensive end worth looking at.
Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback available, but also a great fit in Mike Zimmer's defense. He's physical at the point of attack and fast enough to turn and run with defenders. He's also one hell of a return man.
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.
Dontari Poe 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.
Poe has made a name for himself with his ability to strong-arm offensive linemen. He’s quickly moving up draft boards.
The New York Giants have a roster ready to make the playoffs and then do some damage. What they need is help at linebacker and on the offensive line. Unfortunately, the draft’s best late first-round tackle (Andrew Datko) was 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 outside linebacker.
The team would love to combine Zach Brown's amazing athletic ability with Mathias Kiwanuka on the edge. While Kiwi brings strength and size the the position, Brown is freakishly fast and instinctive. He'll be an instant star in New York.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are surviving this season with one good cornerback—Ike Taylor. They will look to add talent in the secondary and along the offensive line through the 2012 draft class.
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 Janoris Jenkins, and then some.
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.
With their first of two picks in the first round, the New England Patriots look to bolster their defensive line.
Jared Crick would be a top 15 player had he not torn a pectoral muscle. The injury will cause Crick to likely miss most pre-draft events, included the scouting combine. The injury will not cause any long-term issues, but Crick’s draft stock could take a hit.
The Patriots will be happy to pick up the versatile defensive lineman. Crick projects well at both defensive tackle and end. He has rare agility for his size, making him a threat to play in both the 3-4 or 4-3 defense.
The Chicago Bears have problems along the offensive line. Outside of rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi, the entire offensive line could be overhauled.
The team is high on Carimi on the right side, but the situation at left tackle and guard is horrible. The Bears are in a position to draft the best available lineman in the first several rounds.
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.
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.
The San Francisco 49ers roster looks set at wide receiver, but getting in and looking at the future for each player shows changes can be made.
Michael Crabtree was a Top 10 draft pick, and he's finally showing the production they team hoped they'd get from him. Crabtree, however, would be best in the slot going forward, as he's a matchup nightmare there.
Braylon Edwards, signed this offsesason to complement Crabtree, has been shaky at best. Josh Morgan looked like the best receiver on the team, but now he’s out with an injury. The team was active at the trade deadline in talks to bring Brandon Lloyd back to the Bay Area.
The 49ers need help at receiver now. With Edwards’ contract expiring and little production coming from him, 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.
The New England Patriot offense has been less than impressive this year—and I blame the lack of talent at wide receiver for that.
The Patriots could go outside linebacker or safety here, but no players left on the board are a good value. And value is what Bill Belichick is all about. He's also a fan of drafting from his former coaches who are now at the college ranks.
Greg Schiano never coached directly under Belichick, but he was a defensive coordinator in Miami and the two are known to like one-another. Schiano's wide receiver, Mohamed Sanu, would be an immediate fit in the outside wide receiver position the Patriots have been trying to fill since Randy Moss left.
Of course, since this is the second of the Patriots first-rounders, it’s entirely possible Bill Belichick will trade it away for future picks.
The Green Bay Packers have built a juggernaut through the draft. Their 2012 class will feature solid picks on the offensive line and defensive line, with help coming in the secondary and at running back in later rounds.
First up, getting a defensive end. Ryan Pickett and Jairus Wynn are merely average, both being protected by exceptional play at nose tackle and linebacker.
Devon Still plays tackle at Penn State, but he has the size and strength to make an impact at defensive end in this 3-4 defense.