Now that the Super Bowl is over the draft order is finalized, it’s time to take a look at what the 2011 NFL Draft. Quite a bit has changed since the last time I posted one of these on the site. Here are my pre-Combine projections for what the first round might look like…
1. Carolina Panthers – QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
Just like was the case a year ago when nobody began to really start to connect the dots between Sam Bradford and St. Louis with the top pick until after the Combine, I think that will be the case with the Panthers. Carolina has every reason to take Gabbert No. 1. Sure, they already have Jimmy Clausen. But nothing Clausen did last year made it seem like he was poised to compete in this division, where he’d be facing the likes of Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and the emerging Josh Freeman. Gabbert has the ability to potential to match those guys. Gabbert is a big, strong-armed, and accurate passer. And there’s no way the Panthers can come through this draft process and believe that he isn’t a significant upgrade over Clausen.
2. Denver Broncos – DT Nick Fairley, Auburn
With the switch to the 4-3, the Broncos are going to need some pressure up front. And Fairley provides much of that on the interior. Fairley was a dominant force throughout this past year, and due to the successful rookie season of Ndamukong Suh, he will be highly coveted this April. Personally, I don’t think Fairley is in the same class as Suh, but he’s a good fit in Denver because he can be that physical, yet highly disruptive presence inside that should team well with Elvis Dumervil on the outside.
3. Buffalo Bills – DE Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson
The Bills desperately need talent on defense and pass rush help, and Bowers is the best available. They play a predominantly 3-4 scheme, but they do hybridize it with a lot of 4-3 looks. Bowers is a good fit in this defense because he’s big and strong enough to play defensive end, but also athletic and quick enough to play in space and get some looks at linebacker. His selection will likely cause them to be more 4-3 and less 3-4, which is not a bad thing since the vast majority of their personnel fits the former scheme better.
4. Cincinnati Bengals – WR A.J. Green, Georgia
With the looming issues with Chad Ochocinco nee Johnson, and the likelihood that Terrell Owens was one and done with the team, the Bengals will need another primetime target on the outside. Especially with Carson Palmer wanting out, he’ll need some weapons to calm his discontent. Green reminds me a lot of Randy Moss in that he’s tall, lean, fast, and has great ball skills. He’ll be a dynamic weapon in that division and immediately give the Bengals a weapon on the outside to help them contend in the future.
5. Arizona Cardinals – OT Tyron Smith, USC
This seems like a down year for offensive tackles as far as quality at the top, but we haven’t not had a tackle taken in the Top 10 since 2005, and I don’t expect that streak to end. Smith is a good fit in Arizona because he has the athleticism to play left tackle, but the experience playing on the right side. That gives the Cardinals options moving forward with whether or not they want to move Levi Brown back to right tackle or keep him on the left side. Smith is an athletic marvel that may not be considered one of the Top 10 guys today, but probably by the end of the Combine, I suspect you’ll start to see him rise up collective boards.
6. Cleveland Browns – WR Julio Jones, Alabama
Jones doesn’t have quite the hype around him as Green does, but when you pop in the tape, you don’t see a ton of difference. Jones is a guy that has the size and speed to be a dynamic weapon either as a possession receiver or a guy that can stretch the field. He is an ideal fit for Cleveland as they will need a big, physical go-to receiver to work the short field since they lack a strong-armed passer with Colt McCoy.
7. San Francisco 49ers – QB Jake Locker, Washington
It’s hard for me to see Jim Harbaugh not going after a quarterback with his top pick this year. He’s not going to want to go with either option of Alex or Troy Smith, and he’ll want to start fresh with a young passer that they can develop. And his familiarity with Locker from their shared days in the Pac-10. A player like Patrick Peterson would be very tempting at this spot, but the 49ers need a new quarterback that will signal the new direction the franchise is trying to head in.
8. Tennessee Titans – CB Patrick Peterson, LSU
The Titans want a young quarterback to be their new franchise passer, and while I’m sure Bud Adams will be attracted to a mobile guy like Cam Newton, they will ultimately pass on him for the dynamic weapon in Peterson. The Titans secondary has been a weakness of theirs for years, and playing in a division that features Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne, being weak there isn’t a good strategy. Peterson is as athletically gifted a corner since Champ Bailey came out over a decade ago, and should immediately slide in and solidify their defense.
9. Dallas Cowboys – CB Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
The Cowboys need help in their secondary, and Amukamara is a good fit to provide. He’s a prospect that reminds me a lot of Nnamdi Asomugha in that he’s a guy that is big, physical, plays the run well and can go toe to toe with the top NFL receivers. The Cowboys secondary was their biggest weakness this past year with their defense taking a huge step back, and they need to get bigger and stronger here.
10. Washington Redskins – OLB Von Miller, Texas A&M
The Redskins are continuing to bolster their 3-4 defense, and getting another dynamic pass rusher on the outside to team with Brian Orakpo is exactly what they need to take it to a whole new level. Miller has risen up boards due to a strong finish to his 2010 season as well as a good performance in January’s Senior Bowl. He has an explosive first step and the athleticism and range to play in space, something that Orakpo still hasn’t quite developed. He’s like the James Harrison to Orakpo’s LaMarr Woodley.
11. Houston Texans – OLB Robert Quinn, North Carolina
If Miller doesn’t fall into their laps, then the Texans will settle for someone like Quinn. He’s gone a bit under the radar because he was forced to sit out this past year to violating NCAA rules. But that’s not likely to really hurt his draft stock as much as it would others because he was entering this year as the premier pass rusher in the class. Quinn has a good first step and can potentially play either end or rush linebacker. The Texans need to find someone that can put consistent pressure on the quarterback besides Mario Williams, and with their new 3-4 defense installed by Wade Phillips, Quinn will fit into that scheme well much like Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware have in the past.
12. Minnesota Vikings – QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
There are many questions about Mallett’s pro potential, but there isn’t any doubt about his rocket arm. Even the term rocket may not do it justice. The Vikings need a quarterback, and with the threat of the lockout preventing them from snagging the veteran they probably prefer, Mallett will have to do. His arm strength and ability to connect to guys like Rice and Harvin, will work well in conjunction with the play-action game that new coordinator Bill Musgrave is likely to employ with Adrian Peterson toting the rock.
13. Detroit Lions – CB Brandon Harris, Miami
The Lions picked up Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith last year, and both players had their moments, but it’s clear that in a division that sports the Green Bay Packers, and explosive, emerging young receivers on the Vikings and Bears as well, they cannot afford to be slacking at this position. Harris gives them another fast, athletic guy to help match up with guys in the slot or on the outside, something they’ll need with guys like Harvin, Jennings, and Hester making waves there.
14. St. Louis Rams – DT Marcell Dareus, Alabama
Dareus did not have the strong junior season that many expected, but he’s still a very good prospect that could really blossom in the aggressive attacking scheme of Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis. The Rams passed on Ndamukong Suh last year, and while they got strong contributions from Fred Robbins, they need to get younger and stronger at this position. Dareus played end in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme, but has the frame and quickness to fit perhaps even better in a 4-3 scheme on the inside at tackle.
15. Miami Dolphins – RB Mark Ingram, Alabama
It does not seem that Ronnie Brown is going to be a long-term option in Miami any more, and Ricky Williams seems like he’s pledged only to play one more years, so the Dolphins need to find someone that can solidify this spot for the long term future. Ingram is exactly that. His father played for Bill Parcells, and while Parcells may no longer be running the organization, his fingerprints are still all over the team. Ingram is a rare runner with power, speed, and vision and should be a good fit as a lead back as the team tries to find ways to take pressure of young Chad Henne and their passing game.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Cam Newton, Auburn
The Jags have a lot of needs in their secondary and with their pass rush, but with their desire to get better and younger at this position as well, they cannot afford to pass up on Newton. Newton is athletic, physical specimen with a rocket arm. Many thought they would take hometown hero Tim Tebow last year, but Newton is just an upgrade of that style of player. He’s raw, but he’ll have the benefit of sitting and watching David Garrard for at least another year before he’s asked to take over the reins.
17. New England Patriots (from Oakland) – OLB Justin Houston, Georgia
The Patriots young defense can only get younger, becuase they still have serious issues on that side of the ball. Their lack of a strong pass rush is probably their biggest weakness, and adding a player like Houston should definitely help in that area. A guy that can play either end or linebacker at the pro level, Houston flashed strong potential with his first step and speed off the edge in Georgia’s 3-4 defense this past year. He should help give the Patriots a young core of linebackers joining Mayo, Spikes, and Cunningham for the future.
18. San Diego Chargers – DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
The Chargers don’t have a ton of pressing needs as they should have been a playoff team had it not been for holdouts and terrible special teams. But they do need to get stronger in their front 3, as Luis Castillo is no longer the top-notch 3-4 end he once was. Watt has the size and strength to fit very well in a 3-4 scheme, and was a very productive pass rusher at Wisconsin this past year, making him a good complement to Castillo as well as eventual successor to anchor their front.
19. New York Giants – OLB Martez Wilson, Illinois
Wilson is a dynamic athlete that is reminiscent of Karlos Dansby. He’ll likely play outside in the Giants scheme, but also offer the versatility and potential to move inside in the future if need be. He’s fast, physical and should be a good pass rusher, somehting the Giants covet at this position.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE Aldon Smith, Missouri
The Bucs desperately need to acquire a pass rusher, and Smith suffices. Smith is another player that come the COmbine could see his stock begin to soar due to him being another strong athletic specimen. Injuries limited him for much of this past year, but when healthy he’s fast, explosive pass rusher that should solidify the Bucs front as he joins the likes of Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.
21. Kansas City Chiefs – OT Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State
The Chiefs have needs on defense as well as wide receiver, but the Chiefs are a typical conservative drafting team, and would love to add a lineman to upgrade their front five. Branden Albert hasn’t quite solidified the left tackle position, and might have a brighter future moving to the right side. Sherrod should be able to step in and give them a strong left tackle for the future that can be an upgrade.
22. Indianapolis Colts – OT Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
For too long, the Colts have neglected this position at the top of the draft, and while they would be tempted to take someone like Torrey Smith, they cannot neglect this spot again. Castonzo isn’t the biggest tackle, but he’s athletic and polished and should fit well in the Colts offense. His presence would allow them to move Charlie Johnson back to guard, which in essence should solidify two spots instead of just one.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – CB Aaron Williams, Texas
The Eagles need to find another corner to play opposite Asante Samuel, and Williams is as good a fit as they can find. He’s a tall, fast press corner that harkens back to the types of corners the Eagles had years ago when Andy Reid first took over the team. He should help solidify that secondary and be a significant upgrade over the smaller Ellis Hobbs.
24. New Orleans Saints – DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn had a down senior year, but he’s still a good, strong, athletic pass rusher that will be a very good fit for the Saints at left end opposite Will Smith. The Saints lack of pass rush was one of hte reasons why their defense took a step back from 2009 to 2010, and solidifying that spot with a guy like Clayborn is a step in the right direction.
25. Seattle Seahawks – WR Torrey Smith, Maryland
The Seahawks have a plethora of needs, but they cannot pass up on a solid pass catcher like Smith at this juncture in the draft. While Mike Williams did emerge this past year, he doesn’t have the proven history that he can be trusted to be a go-to No. 1 receiver at this level. Smith is fast, physical guy that does have that sort of potential and will give Charlie Whitehurst or whoever is their quarterback moving forward a strong target on the outside.
26. Baltimore Ravens – WR Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh
The Ravens need to find more explosive options at the wide receiver position, and Baldwin is about the best they’re going to find at this point in the draft. He’s a big, fast receiver that excels on the vertical routes and be a nice fit opposite another physical specimen like Anquan Boldin that shines on the shorter ones.
27. Atlanta Falcons – DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
It’s clear the Falcons need help with their pass rush, and Kerrigan is a high motor and productive player that the Falcons tend to covet. He helps solidify the left side more than likely because of the disappointing year of Kroy Biermann and career of Jamaal Anderson on that side of the ball. He also can be the type of guy going forward that can help replace John Abraham as their top pass rusher and be reminiscent of former Falcon Patrick Kerney up front.
28. New England Patriots – DE Cameron Jordan, California
The Patriots already got their edge pass rusher, but now need their defensive end to replace Richard Seymour. Their defense hasn’t been the same since they traded him away two years ago, and getting a guy like Jordan can potentially fill that hole. Jordan is a good athlete that has experience playing in a 3-4 scheme at Cal, and is a productive pass rusher and run defender.
29. Chicago Bears – OT Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
The Bears offensive line was a mess this past year, and they need to find ways to keep Cutler healthy. Carimi isn’t the ideal fit to play left tackle, but at least offers the best versatility to play right tackle as well as guard since the Bears haven’t quite concluded who exactly makes up their best fit. More than likely, Carimi can fill in immediately at right tackle with the potential to move to left tackle in the future if need be. His size and ability to push the pile also should attract him to the Bears who want to get back to a more physical ground attack.
30. New York Jets – DE Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple
Wilkerson is another prospect that is going under the radar because he played at Temple, and is just a junior. But after the Combine, he should begin to emerge as a top candidate. He’s athletic and disruptive and has the potential to fit in any scheme. The Jets need him to solidify their 3-4 front as they lack any young good candidates there, as well as he should help provide some pressure up front.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – OT Nate Solder, Colorado
The Steelers offensive line was a mess this year, and adding a player like Solder should definitely help. He can play on the left side and potentially push Max Starks back to right tackle, and a returning Willie Colon inside to guard, which should give them the five best starters with Pouncey and Kemoeatu also working inside. Solder is a nice athlete with a very tall frame that needs time to fill out, but should be a nice fit for the Steelers.
32. Green Bay Packers – OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
Ayers is a top-level athlete that could be a strong fit opposite Clay Matthews in the Packers 3-4 attack. They know they need to find another pass rusher to team with Matthews, and Ayers while not a proven pass rusher has flashed the potential. Not to mention he can also play in space, be a force vs. the run, and be the type of linebacker that can help make their blitz packages even better.