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…
Potential No. 1? QB Blaine Gabbert
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.