1. Carolina: Blaine Gabbert, QB
In a previous year the selection of a quarterback at this spot would be almost guaranteed. The Panthers are looking for help in a number of areas, and likely will consider Cam Newton, Marcell Dareus and Patrick Peterson. Ron Rivera has taken over, and like any new regime he’ll want a quarterback he can trust. Newton has more risk (and potential reward) associated with him than Gabbert, and when selecting first you have to make sure you don’t waste the pick.
2. Denver: Marcell Dareus, DT
The Broncos need to improve their run defense as well as their pass rush. There is good depth along the defensive line in this draft, and the Broncos can take the cream of the crop. I think they go with Dareus, since the return of Elvis Dumervil should make the pass rush less of a significant issue.
3. Buffalo: Patrick Peterson, CB
The Bills were better than their record last year, but have a long way to go before they can compete for a playoff spot. Getting a star quarterback to build around is the first step, but would they gamble on Cam Newton here? Quite possibly, but they could also wait and see who is available in the second round. Ryan Fitzpatrick is good enough to start for another season, so they could take a less-polished QB and wait for him to develop. Peterson is considered by some to be the best player in the draft at any position, and the Bills need a good secondary if they ever plan to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots.
4. Cincinnati: A.J. Green, WR
The Bengals need to figure out their quarterback situation, but Green is incredibly talented, and would be a draw for any QB they look to bring in. An excellent wide receiver with good speed and height, Green has Offensive Rookie of the Year written all over him.
5. Arizona: Von Miller, OLB
Considered one of the safer picks, Miller is a good match for the Cardinals as they need some youth at the position, and he has proven his ability to rush the passer at the college level. He will have to improve his run defense, but Miller’s harassment of the quarterback could lead to more interception opportunities for Arizona’s ball-hawking secondary players Adrian Wilson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
6. Cleveland: Da’Quan Bowers, DE
The Browns are in a good position here, since they can wait and take whoever slips out of the top five. If Bowers shows he is healthy during his Pro Day, his potential as a stud pass-rushing defensive end is simply too good to pass up.
7. San Francisco: Prince Amukamara, CB
It would be a dream come true if the 49ers found Peterson waiting for them with this pick, but they will settle for the talented Amukamara. Early mock drafts had Prince going in the top 5, so this would not exactly be a reach. He can play good man or zone coverage, and San Francisco definitely needs to improve its secondary.
8. Tennessee: Nick Fairley, DT
I don’t see the Titans going after Cam Newton after the failed Vince Young experiment. Fairley could become the new Albert Haynesworth for the Titans, and help their defensive line return to their glory days alongside Justin Babin and Jason Jones.
9. Dallas: Tyron Smith, OT
If they find themselves in this position, Dallas might look to trade down a few spots with a team looking for Robert Quinn (Patriots possibly?) or Cam Newton. Otherwise they can take their pick of offensive linemen. Smith only started for two seasons in college, and is merely 20 years old, but when selecting an o-lineman this high you are looking for long-term potential.
10. Washington: Cam Newton, QB
The Redskins love to gamble and make a splash, as they did with Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb. Mike Shanahan is not the type of coach to let a player run the show, and he may be able to keep Newton focused and get the best out of him. Julio Jones is a possibility as well since Santana Moss has been their lone passing weapon for some time and is now a free agent.
11. Houston: Robert Quinn, DE/OLB
Quinn was a fantastic pass rusher before being suspended for the 2010 college season. The Texans need to recalibrate their front seven as they are switching to a 3-4 defense, and Quinn would be an outside linebacker who mainly provides pressure. Regardless of the scheme, having both Mario Williams and Quinn coming after you will not be a welcome proposition for opposing QBs. The Texans need to fix their secondary as well, but a better pass rush would be a step in the right direction.
12. Minnesota: J.J. Watt, DE
I think the Vikings might look at Julio Jones here in case they are unable to retain Sidney Rice. However, defensive end Ray Edwards is also a free agent, and probably will leave for the highest bidder. Watt would be able to pick up some of the slack while Kevin Williams and possibly Pat Williams are suspended, and help Minnesota maintain its defensive line dominance well into the future.
13. Detroit: Anthony Castonzo, OT
The Lions did not give up a whole lot of sacks last season (27), but the ones they did were costly as QB Matt Stafford twice suffered injuries that sidelined him for a large chunk of games. Since Jim Schwartz took over as head coach, the Lions have done a good job in the draft, and this would be another relatively safe pick.
14. St. Louis: Julio Jones, WR
It is somewhat unlikely that Jones would fall this far, as some rank him above A.J. Green and a team looking for a big, tough receiver might trade up to get him. The Rams would be happy to take him here. Jones is known as a good run blocker, and would provide a big target downfield. He would upgrade a St. Louis receiving corps that did not have a single player with over 700 receiving yards or 3 touchdown catches.
15. Miami: Mark Ingram, RB
Mock drafts have had Ingram here for months because it makes a lot of sense. Too much sense perhaps, but the Dolphins will need to run the ball a lot while they figure out their quarterback situation, and their long-time tandem Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown are both free agents. Ingram would give them another weapon to go along with Brandon Marshall, and would quickly become a large part of their offense.
16. Jacksonville: Ryan Kerrigan, DE
The Jaguars are very much in need of receiving options, especially if Mike Sims-Walker leaves via free agency. There are no WRs worthy of selection here though, so they will continue their annual search for an impact pass-rusher. Kerrigan is a tough player who plays hard and looks to cause turnovers. He is not as flashy as Aldon Smith, but should help Jacksonville forget about the thus-far disappointing Derrick Harvey.
17. New England (from Oakland): Cameron Jordan, DE
The Patriots would have a few good options in this position, including DE/OLB Aldon Smith, and a number of top offensive line prospects. Bill Belichick loves to spring surprises, but the only surprise here would be how much this pick makes sense since the Patriots would be using the selection they received for Richard Seymour to draft his replacement. Jordan played in a 3-4 defense in college, and has good strength, technique and athleticism. He was even asked to demonstrate his ability to drop back in coverage at his Pro Day, a sign that some teams may be considering him as an outside linebacker. He would give the Patriots the pass-rushing defensive end they have been missing since Seymour’s peak years. Jordan is also strong against the run, and would quickly become a three-down DE for New England.
18. San Diego: Aldon Smith, DE/OLB
Smith is a tough player with a great explosive burst off the snap. He is tall, with very long arms, and can rush from the edge or from the inside. If he can successfully transition to the 3-4 outside linebacker position, he could quickly make Chargers fans forget all about Shawn Merriman.
19. New York Giants: Nate Solder, OT
The Giants once-vaunted offensive line is aging rapidly. Guard Chris Snee (29) is their youngest full-time starter. Solder may need to bulk up a little (only 21 reps in the bench press at the Combine), but he has good agility for such a massive player, and is considered a good run blocker. Solder may not have to start immediately, and could benefit from learning the pro game as a backup before eventually taking over the left tackle position from David Deihl.
20. Tampa Bay: Brandon Harris, CB
The Bucs are in the market for a cornerback, especially if rising star Aqib Talib’s aggravated assault charges lead to him being suspended or jailed. Harris is regarded as a better man defender than zone defender, but the other top CB available, Jimmy Smith has attitude and off-field behavior concerns of his own.
21. Kansas City: Mike Pouncey, OG/C
The Chiefs need another pass catcher to take some of the burden off Dwayne Bowe, but this is a bit early for any of the remaining receivers. Instead they will look to upgrade their offensive line by selecting the versatile Pouncey who can play both guard and center.
22. Indianapolis: Corey Liuget, DT
Luiget has been steadily rising in the eyes of many analysts, and should have his name called sometime in the first round. The Colts also need help on the offensive line to protect what will soon be the NFL’s top earner in Payton Manning. However, their defensive line also struggled to stop the run, allowing an average of 127 rushing yards per game. Luiget has a low center of gravity, and should be able to hold his ground, as well as provide a pass-rushing presence. He is unlikely to face many double teams, since opposing offensive linemen will be worrying about Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
23. Philadelphia: Jimmy Smith, CB
The Eagles have a glaring need at cornerback, and Smith is an excellent player who would probably go higher if it weren’t for some perceived red flags regarding his conduct off the field (Smith apparently failed a drug test at Colorado, and was cited for underage drinking). Andy Reid is a great coach who does not tolerate any nonsense, and he should be able to keep him in check. Smith has good size (6’2", 205 lbs) and versatility, as he was often matched up against the biggest opposing receiver, regardless of where they lined up.
24. New Orleans: Akeem Ayers, OLB
Ayers is one of the few pure outside linebackers with a first round grade, and the Saints could use some help at this position after the loss of Scott Fujita in free agency last year. Ayers did not run especially well at the Combine (4.8 second 40-yard dash), but that may have been a fluke as he is generally regarded as a fast, agile linebacker who is good in coverage (6 interceptions in his career at UCLA, two returned for touchdowns). Ayers can also blitz the passer (14 sacks in three years), and forced two fumbles, both during his 2009 season.
25. Seattle: Jake Locker, QB
Matt Hasselbeck only has a couple seasons left, and Charlie Whitehurst did not particularly impress last year. The Seahawks also need help on the offensive and defensive lines, but selecting a local star could help them carry over the positive momentum from their improbable playoff run last season. Locker would have time to adjust to the pro game while Hasselbeck winds down his career.
26. Baltimore: Cameron Hayward, DE
The Ravens need help at cornerback, but with four corners already off the board, I think the they will look to boost their defensive line instead. Having both Hayward and Haloti Ngata as ends would make for a tough, versatile combination that would be strong against the run and the pass.
27. Atlanta: Adrian Clayborn, DE
The Falcons could easily go for a cornerback like Aaron Williams of Texas here, but Clayborn is known as an explosive defensive end who can also play the run. Atlanta got an impressive 13 sacks from John Abraham last year, but they cannot rely on him forever. Clayborn would likely benefit from offensive lines focusing on Abraham, and the added pressure would help take some of the strain off of a secondary that got torched by Aaron Rogers in the playoffs.
28. New England: Gabe Carimi, OT
Something tells me the Patriots might wait until the later rounds to draft offensive linemen, but Carimi is an excellent prospect with quick feet, and good run-blocking skills. He could start at right tackle and allow Sebastian Vollmer to move to the left side, or if Matt Light is signed to a short-term deal he could potentially gain some experience at guard before moving to tackle. Carimi is huge (6’7", 314 lbs), and is known as an aggressive lineman who likes to punish opponents, but he is also smart, receiving multiple Academic All-American awards. With a little attention from veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, he could quickly develop into a top NFL tackle.
29. Chicago: Muhammad Wilkerson, DT/DE
Wilkerson is a versatile defensive lineman who can play both end and tackle. He has great length and agility. The Bears recently released Tommie Harris, and while he might return, they could use some help up front to take some of the pressure off Julius Peppers. Wilkerson did not exactly play against elite competition at Temple, so he may take a little while to adjust to the NFL, but he has the physical tools to do so. Chicago could also use some offensive line help, but most of the top prospects have already been selected.
30. New York Jets: Justin Houston, DE/OLB
The Jets will need to replace Bryan Thomas (31) in the next few years, and they have finally accepted the fact that Vernon Gholston is not that player. Houston is a solid run defender who can also explode after the quarterback. He has good speed (4.68 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine), and has experience rushing the passer from a standing position.
31. Pittsburgh: Aaron Williams, CB
Ike Taylor cannot continue to play at such a high level much longer, and the Steelers will have a huge hole in their defense if they do not have a replacement ready to go. Williams has good size (6’1", 195 lbs), and is good in run support and on blitzes, important characteristics for Steelers cornerbacks.
32. Green Bay: Torrey Smith, WR
The Packers may not be able to retain Cullen Jenkins, and Johnny Jolly has recently run into trouble with the law, so they could be in the market for a defensive line player. However, so many players at those positions have already come off the board, so instead they could look to bring in another target for Aaron Rogers. Donald Driver cannot play forever, and James Jones may depart via free agency. Smith could give them a nice deep threat to compliment Greg Jennings.
33. New England (from Carolina): Jabaal Sheard, DE/OLB
Sheard has been rising up draft boards recently, and could be the answer for the Patriots at outside linebacker. Although slightly short (6’3", 260 lbs) for the position, he possesses relentless hustle and determination. He has the potential to consistently set the edge versus the run as he has shown good balance and can hold his ground. While not an especially explosive pass rusher, he did have nine sacks last season at Pittsburgh despite facing frequent double teams. Sheard will have to answer questions about a fight he was arrested for in 2010, but he was able to put the incident behind him during the season. If the Patriots feel they can overlook this concern (a big if given the Brandon Meriweather situation), Sheard could become a good compliment across from last years second round selection Jermaine Cunningham.