All five of the teams featured in this slideshow have had greater success in 2011 than they did in 2010. All will certainly be looking to build on that success in the 2012 NFL draft.
However, all of these teams will be drafting at a lower spot than they did in 2011, so it won't be so easy to select an A.J. Green or a Cam Newton to turn your struggling franchise around.
Considering their needs and the players who will realistically be available when they draft, here are the best choices for each of these teams.
Carolina has been far more competitive this year due to the immediate success of Cam Newton and the resurgence of Steve Smith. How long can the Panthers rely on Smith being a top WR, though?
While I am a believer in Brandon LaFell becoming a good second WR, the Panthers will need to upgrade at the position in order to enhance Newton's deep throwing skills and guard against teams who will load up on stopping the run.
With their 6-9 record, it looks like Carolina will be drafting somewhere near the 10th spot next year. At that point, Justin Blackmon—the top WR prospect—will almost certainly be off the board. Alshon Jeffery out of South Carolina is the second-best WR prospect, but I don't see him being much different than LaFell.
With no WR fitting the Panthers' needs, I could see them taking a player to spark the defense. Vontaze Burfict would be the guy to give the Carolina defense the edge it has been lacking.
Alternative pick: With the injury troubles that OT Jeff Otah has dealt with, maybe the team looks to Jonathan Martin from Stanford.
The Denver Broncos struck gold last year when they picked Von Miller with the third overall pick. The addition of Miller coupled with the return of Elvis Dumervil has given the Broncos a pass-rushing presence off both edges of the defense.
While much has been made about Tim Tebow's impact on the team—and he has been great in the fourth quarter—it has been the defense who has kept them in games for Tebow to win.
Denver will be picking somewhere near the 20th spot, whether they win the AFC West or not.
What's more, the team must accept that—sooner or later—Champ Bailey will need to be replaced. The good news is, there is a good group of CBs that should be available later in the first round.
I see the Broncos going with Stephen Gilmore out of South Carolina at that point. Gilmore would pair well with Bailey for the next couple of years before taking over the top CB spot himself.
Alternative pick: Denver could use a game-breaking running back to compliment Tebow's running talents. Lamar Miller would fit the bill.
Like the Broncos, Cincinnati is fighting to make the playoffs and this may affect where they end up drafting. Let's just say that even if they make the playoffs, they lose in the first round. That still leaves them drafting at about the 22nd spot. Oh, and remember they also have the Raiders first round pick this year after trading Carson Palmer to Oakland earlier this season.
This gives the Bengals some flexibility in order to select a player at a position of need such as running back or cornerback, and then also take the best player on the board with the other pick.
While many mock drafts I have seen have Cincinnati taking a cornerback, I think guard David DeCastro from Stanford would be a great choice to upgrade the interior of the line. Bobbie Williams will be 36 next year and coming off a season ending ankle injury so the Bengals could use to look to the future there.
Running back Lamar Miller from Miami would be another solid choice for the up and coming offense. Cedric Benson has been a workhorse the last three years, but is not explosive and will probably not be back.
Alternative pick: Mark Barron, Alabama. The safety spot has been a weak spot for years in Cincinnati. Barron's ability to stuff the run would help in going up against Ray Rice and Rashard Mendenhall twice a year.
The Lions have turned things around dramatically since their 0-16 season in 2008. Detroit has already clinched a playoff spot and will be looking for their 10th win of the season at Green Bay next Sunday.
That being said, Lions fans will not be used to where the team is drafting come April. Used to drafting in the Top 10—and commonly in the Top 5—next year will see GM Martin Mayhew picking somewhere between the 22nd and 25th spot.
The Lions, while improved, still have significant areas of need. The linebacking corps, the offensive line and the defensive backfield need talent upgrades. If—and this is a big if—one of the top three OTs fall to the Lions, expect them to snap them up without hesitation. More than likely, though, that won't happen. Instead, the Lions will look to improve their defense.
Looking to bolster their linebackers, I could see the Lions going after Donte Hightower of Alabama.
Alternative pick: Mohammed Sanu of Rutgers. Getting a top WR to line up opposite Calvin Johnson would only help Matthew Stafford. What's more, the WR who lines up opposite Megatron benefits from the fact that he will still draw double teams.
The San Francisco 49ers, in addition to the great coaching job of Jim Harbaugh, have taken advantage of the weak NFC West in running to a 12-3 record. They are looking to be the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs this year.
The suddenly effective play of quarterback Alex Smith has to be encouraging to fans in the Bay Area after years of disappointing play at the position. Still, it has to be wondered whether the team would look at a quarterback if one was sitting there for them in the first round of the draft.
Drafting so late in the first round doesn't really put the Niners in a spot to grab a QB, so I think they look to add another piece to a talented defense. Alfonzo Dennard would give the Niners someone who can shut down one side of the field a little longer, allowing the pass-rushing threats in San Francisco's front seven to do their work.
Alternative pick: Jared Crick, Nebraska. Crick would provide a versatile presence for the 3-4 defense the Niners run.