By JASON BORIS
This year's NFL draft is loaded with uncertainties due to a murky labor situation, the lack of a collective bargaining agreement and a league-imposed lockout. With no free agency, no negotiations between players and teams, and the state of the NFL at a standstill, the 2011 NFL Draft can be summed up in one word - "unpredictable."
Unlike previous years, this draft lacks that true consensus top quality pick and the true strength of Thursday's first round lies in the trenches, especially on the defensive line. In fact, you could easily make a case that half of Thursday's selections will be offensive or defensive linemen.
We also have to consider this year's quarterback dilemma. With so many teams having a glaring need at quarterback, and with no franchise signal-caller locks in this draft, teams will have to make important decisions between drafting for need versus drafting for value. This could lead to trades with teams moving down because they don't want to overdraft quarterbacks and other teams moving up from the second round to get quarterbacks later in the first round. As with any trades, it only takes one to change the entire complexion and landscape of the first round.
As in previous years, I will once again be representing the TIMES NEWS in The Huddle Report's esteemed annual mock draft contest (www.huddlereport.com). The contest is by invitation only and scores the mock drafts of the most reputable and widely-published draft resources in the country. These scores have become the standard by which draft publications, websites and media personnel are measured. Last year, my final mock draft finished tied for 10th out of 87 publications, and over the last five years, my mock drafts rank second for overall accuracy (behind only Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News). For those keeping track, mock drafts are scored under the following criteria: 1 point for each player placed in the first round and 2 points for players matched to the correct team that picks them. For simplicity sake, trades will not be factored into my mock draft.
The time for second-guessing is now over. The Carolina Panthers are now on the clock so let's get to the picks:
1. CAROLINA PANTHERS - Cam Newton (QB, Auburn)
The Panthers need an "impact" player that they can build their franchise around and market to their fan base. Cam Newton certainly fits that profile, but will have a lot of questions to answer both on and off the field, as he is the ultimate boom or bust player in year's draft.
2. DENVER BRONCOS - Von Miller (OLB, Texas A&M)
Denver is transitioning back to a 4-3 base defense this year and will need to retool its defensive front seven to fit the new scheme. This pick will most likely come down to Miller and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Miller, who has gained mile-high momentum in the past 24 hours, is an impact player and the draft's top pass rusher.
3. BUFFALO BILLS - Marcell Dareus (DT, Alabama)
Buffalo would probably love to get their hands on Von Miller with this pick, but instead, they'll turn their attention to improving the league's worst run defense from last season. Dareus is an elite run defender and will fit perfectly in Buffalo's 3-4 alignment.
4. CINCINNATI BENGALS - A.J. Green (WR, Georgia)
The Cincinnati offense is undergoing a complete makeover. They have a new offensive coordinator, Terrell Owens is gone, Chad Ochocinco is going to be traded, Cedric Benson is a free agent and Carson Palmer is refusing to play for the team. This pick will either be Blaine Gabbert or a wide receiver, with the edge going to who I feel is the top player in this year's draft (A.J. Green).
5. ARIZONA CARDINALS - Patrick Peterson (CB, LSU)
This is the point in the draft where things could really start to get interesting. Arizona desperately needs a quarterback, but all indications are they they'd prefer to sign a veteran free agent. A lot of mocks still have Gabbert going to the Cardinals, but this is prime trade territory for a team looking to move up. If they stay here, Patrick Peterson would give Arizona the league's most talented set of young corners.
6. CLEVELAND BROWNS - Julio Jones (WR, Alabama)
This pick is in another prime trading zone and the Browns have several holes to fill. Cleveland could really use an edge rusher like Robert Quinn as they transition back to a 4-3 defense. However, new head coach Pat Shurmur is an offensive guy and giving Colt McCoy a new toy to play with in Julio Jones would certainly help his young quarterback's development.
7. SAN FRANCISCO 49'ERS - Blaine Gabbert (QB, Missouri)
San Francisco has its eyes set on Patrick Peterson, but it's doubtful that he will still be on the board here. If Washington can't trade up with Arizona or Cleveland to get Gabbert, then Jim Harbaugh will be happy to take Gabbert and mold him into an elite quarterback, much like he did with next year's #1 overall pick Andrew Luck.
8. TENNESSEE TITANS - Nick Fairley (DT, Auburn)
There's been some buzz recently that Tennessee might take a quarterback here (Jake Locker???). Instead, the Titans could add an impact presence on the interior of their d-line in the mold of Albert Haynesworth. Plus, Tennessee also hired Fairley's defensive line coach at Auburn to serve in the same capacity (hint...hint).
9. DALLAS COWBOYS - Tyron Smith, (OT, USC)
Jerry Jones hasn't used a first round pick on an offensive lineman since he bought the team in 1989. However, unless he can trade up for Patrick Peterson, I think that is about to change. Smith is considered the top offensive tackle in this year's draft and will fill a huge void for the Cowboys.
10. WASHINGTON REDSKINS - Jake Locker (QB, Washington)
The Redskins don't have a third or fourth round pick and are trying like crazy to move up (with Gabbert as their target). If they can't consummate a deal, they may have to settle for the next quarterback on their board, which is probably Jake Locker, whose physical tools remind me of a previous Shanahan quarterback (Jay Cutler).
11. HOUSTON TEXANS - Aldon Smith (DE/OLB, Missouri)
With Wade Phillips coming to town, Houston will be transitioning to a 3-4 base defense, which will necessitate a change in personnel in the front-seven. The Texans can use a rush linebacker, a defensive end and a nose tackle. Smith can probably help here more than any other prospect, but with the worst secondly in the league last season, Amukamara will be tempting here if he's still on the board.
12. MINNESOTA VIKINGS - Christian Ponder (QB, Florida State)
Minnesota will not be going into next season with Joe Webb as its starting quarterback. This might be a little too early for Ponder, but the first round quarterback run is in full effect with three signal callers already off the board. I think the Vikings would have preferred Jake Locker, but they'll settle for Ponder.
13. DETROIT LIONS - Prince Amukamara (CB, Nebraska)
The Lions desperately need a shutdown cornerback and Prince Amukamara just so happened to fall into their lap. Detroit may be tempted to look at offensive tackles here to protect Matt Stafford's blindside, but for the second year in a row, they'll look to the University of Nebraska to upgrade their defense.
14. ST. LOUIS RAMS - Robert Quinn (DE, North Carolina)
St. Louis would love to draft Julio Jones, but unless they move up into the top 10, they don't have a shot at him. Defensive tackle Corey Luiget has been linked to the Rams in some mock drafts, but St. Louis needs a pass rusher and Steve Spagnuolo thrives on pressuring the quarterback. If not for a year-long suspension at North Carolina, Quinn most likely would have been a top-five pick.
15. MIAMI DOLPHINS - Mike Pouncey (OG/C, Florida)
Miami has pretty much narrowed down their selection to taking a quarterback, a running back or an offensive lineman. The Dolphins had a lot of issues on the interior of their offensive line last year and head coach Tony Sparano was a former offensive line coach. A lot of people have quarterback Ryan Mallet coming off the board here, but Miami already has one "bad boy" on the roster (Brandon Marshall). Don't rule out Andy Dalton though.
16. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS - Ryan Kerrigan (DE, Purdue)
It's hard to imagine the Jaguars not taking a defensive end here, although they could be tempted if Jake Locker is still on the board. Jacksonville's pass rush was non-existent last year and Kerrigan will certainly help get to the quarterback. Kerrigan (who has no character concerns) is also the type of player that general manager Gene Smith looks for.
17. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (from Oakland Raiders) - Cameron Jordan (DE, California)
Considering the depth of defensive linemen in this draft and the Patriots' obvious need at the position, you would think that Jordan to the Patriots would be a perfect match. However, New England has three of the first 33 selections in this draft and we all known Bill Belichick's penchant for wheeling and dealing picks.
18. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS - J.J. Watt (DE, Wisconsin)
Watt is a prototypical 3-4 defensive end with the talent and skill set to fit in perfectly with the Chargers' defensive scheme. Watt has a non-stop motor and can rush the passer as well as stop the run. Watt and Cameron Jordan are very similar players and are the best five-technique defensive ends in this year's draft.
19. NEW YORK GIANTS - Nate Solder (OT, Colorado)
The Giants desperately need to address their aging offensive line and Solder has the highest upside of any offensive tackle in this year's draft. Mike Pouncey is certainly on New York's radar, but I doubt he'd be available at this point in the draft. Protecting Eli Manning's blindside needs to be a priority.
20. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS - Da'Quan Bowers (DE, Clemson)
Two months ago, Bowers was penciled in as a top-five pick. However, his draft stock has tumbled due to concerns of his long-term health and durability of his knee. Some teams have even taken Bowers off their draft boards entirely, but I think his free-fall will end somewhere in round one. Tampa Bay needs a defensive end and Bowers is a high risk/high reward prospect.
21. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS - Gabe Carimi (OT, Wisconsin)
Kansas City has a gaping hole on the offensive line, especially at right tackle. Carimi was a four-year starter for the Badgers and is battle-tested. There are some who question Carimi's ability to adequately protect the quarterback's blindside, but he can slide in at right tackle and be just what the Chiefs need.
22. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS - Anthony Castonzo (OT, Boston College)
The Colts passed on Rodger Saffold in the first round of last year's draft and it came back to haunt them. I doubt Bill Polian will make the same mistake twice. The Colts' offensive line has been lackluster as of late and they need an adequate blindside protector for Peytom Manning. This pick HAS to be an offensive tackle.
23. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES - Corey Luiget (DT, Illinois)
The Eagles have a major hole at cornerback opposite Asante Samuel and I've had Jimmy Smith targeted to Philadelphia for the last two months. While no one can question Smith's athletic ability, his off-the-field record is scary and the Eagles may not want to take the risk. Instead, they'll look to either the offensive or defensive lines for a "legit" tackle prospect.
24. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS - Marvin Austin (DT, North Carolina)
Like Robert Quinn, Marvin Austin didn't play last year for the Tarheels due to a year-long suspension; however, he can't be forgotten about. The Saints signed Shaun Rogers this offseason, but more help is still needed on the defensive line. In the Saints' 4-3 scheme, Austin and defensive end Adrian Clayborn seem to be the best fits.
25. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS - Danny Watkins (OG, Baylor)
Seattle can go in a number of different directions with this pick, including quarterback, or they could simply trade out of the first round altogether. However, if they stay here, Danny Watkins would be an immediate upgrade for an offensive line that struggled mightily last season.
26. BALTIMORE RAVENS - Jimmy Smith (CB, Baltimore)
Baltimore's failure to address the cornerback position last year cost them dearly. Due to character concerns, I think many teams will pass on Smith in the first round, but Ozzie Newsome isn't afraid of that and it's a known fact that Baltimore considers Smith an "elite" cornerback prospects. If Smith gets by the Eagles, he won't get by the Ravens.
27. ATLANTA FALCONS - Adrian Clayborn (DE, Iowa)
Atlanta's biggest need is a defensive end opposite John Abraham or a receiving threat opposite Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez can't play forever and Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph is an intriguing option with this pick, but Clayborn is a top defensive end and if it wasn't for a disappointing senior season, he would have been a top-10 pick.
28. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS - Mark Ingram (RB, Alabama)
First and foremost, I don't think New England will keep this pick, as they'll have many suitors looking to trade up. However, if they had to make a pick here, Mark Ingram would have to draw serious consideration. The Patriots have a nice stable of backs, but lack that true stud workhorse. I can't see Ingram falling out of the first round so New England makes the most sense.
29. CHICAGO BEARS - Derek Sherrod (OT, Mississippi State)
The Bears just released Tommie Harris, so finding a defensive tackle to replace him should be paramount. If Corey Liuget or Marvin Austin is still available, they could be the pick. However, the Bears also desperately need held along the offensive line and Sherrod is the last offensive tackle left before a major drop off in talent.
30. NEW YORK JETS - Phil Taylor (DT, Baylor)
Phil Taylor is a prototypical nose tackle for a 3-4 scheme, which means his two most likely suitors in the first round are either Kansas City or New York. Taylor would be a nice replacement for Kris Jenkins and is just the type of player that Rex Ryan covets.
31. PITTSBURGH STEELERS - Aaron Williams (CB, Texas)
In year's past, Pittsburgh has been a tough team to predict because they don't often have glaring needs; however, they have two big needs this year - cornerback and offensive line. The Steelers have ignored their secondary for years in the draft. Ike Taylor is the best cornerback they have and he's currently a free agent, so Williams would be an immediate upgrade.
32. GREEN BAY PACKERS - Cameron Heyward (DE, Ohio State)
This pick is a wild card because it's the last chance for teams to trade up for a potential quarterback (Dalton, Mallet). New England has the first pick in the second round (which you know they'll be dealing) so you can bet that teams will want to try to jump them to get their guy. If the Packers do end up making this pick, Cameron Heyward makes perfect sense since Green Bay has plenty of questions at defensive end.