The 2011 NFL Draft is one week away and the first round picture is becoming more clear. In our final mock draft, we make some bold predictions about where the elite players in this year’s draft class will end up:
1. Carolina Panthers select Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn
For a team drafting first overall, the Panthers don’t have as many needs as you might expect. Newton carries a large bust risk, but the risk is worth it because of his tremendous upside. In a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman, the Panthers need a star QB to compete.
2. Denver Broncos select Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle, Alabama
All the talk of being unhappy with Tim Tebow and wanting to select a QB is a smokescreen. The Broncos absolutely must get better on the interior of their defensive line and selecting Dareus is the best way to do it.
3. Buffalo Bills select Von Miller, linebacker, Texas A&X
The Bills will select Newton if he’s available, but he probably won’t be. The backup plan won’t be much of a step down, as Miller could easily emerge as the best player in this draft class.
4. Cincinnati Bengals select Julio Jones, wide receiver, Alabama
We have our first major surprise of the draft. The Bengals choose Jones over A.J. Green because of his better physicality, a quality that is essential in the tough AFC North. They will wait until round 2 to select a QB.
5. Arizona Cardinals select Blaine Gabbert, quarterback, Missouri
Max Hall and John Skelton certainly aren’t the answer and Kevin Kolb can’t be obtained since no trades are possible during the lockout. The Cardinals almost have no choice but to select Gabbert.
6. Cleveland Browns select AJ Green, wide receiver, Georgia
Opinions on Green’s potential have cooled somewhat in recent months (no one compares him to Calvin Johnson anymore), but he’s still exactly what the Browns need: a glider who can stretch the field and keep defenses honest.
7. San Francisco 49ers select Patrick Peterson, cornerback, LSU
Doubts remain about whether the 219-pound Peterson is too heavy to succeed at corner. Ultimately, he may move to safety (where he’ll still be among the heaviest at the position). The 49ers need help at both positions, so there’s little risk to this pick.
8. Tennessee Titans select Robert Quinn, defensive end, North Carolina
The Titans need a QB, but it’s too early to grab Jake Locker or Colin Kaepernick (the two they like most). Instead, they address a need on defense and will wait until round 2 to find the next face of their franchise.
9. Dallas Cowboys select Tyron Smith, offensive tackle, USC
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes to make flashy picks, but common sense has to win out here. The Cowboys absolutely must improve on the offensive line and Smith is the lineman they like most.
10. Washington Redskins select Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington
Donovan McNabb will be released before the season and Rex Grossman is nothing more than a backup. Locker has accuracy issues, but he’s great at throwing on the run and that’s exactly the kind of player that is needed to run a Shanahan offense.
11. Houston Texans select Prince Amukamara, cornerback, Nebraska
The underachieving Texans aren’t going to the playoffs until they improve their dreadful pass coverage. Amukamara is a great fit and will be the first of several defensive backs the Texans should draft this year.
12. Minnesota Vikings select J.J. Watt, defensive end, Wisconsin
The once-dominant defensive line of the Vikings is starting to get a bit long in the tooth. Watt should fit nicely in Ray Edwards’ vacated spot and can even move inside on passing downs.
13. Detoit Lions select Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, Auburn
This pick will turn a lot of heads. Since Amukamara is off the board and the Lions think they can get a useful offensive lineman in round 2, they draft the best defensive player on the board. Fairley + Ndamukong Suh = nightmares for opposing teams.
14. St. Louis Rams select Ryan Kerrigan, defensive end, Purdue
The Rams would love to have A.J. Green or Julio Jones fall to them, but it isn’t going to happen. There’s no other WR worth taking this high, so the Rams’ focus will switch to improving their weak pass rush.
15. Miami Dolphins select Ryan Mallett, quarterback, Arkansas
Character concerns (including rumors that he admitted past drug use to teams at the Combine) will scare a lot of teams off, but some team will fall in love with Mallett’s size and rocket arm. That team will be the Dolphins.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars select Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, Nevada
The story of the draft this year will be how early the many QB-needy teams choose to address their needs. This pick is arguably a big reach, but the Jags have the luxury of developing Kaepernick behind David Garrard for a year or two.
17. New England Patriots select Aldon Smith, defensive end, Missouri
The Patriots need to upgrade their pass-rushing OLBs. Smith certainly needs some polish, but he has drawn comparisons to DeMarcus Ware and Bill Belichick will love the chance to mold a player with that level of talent.
18. San Diego Chargers select Cameron Jordan, defensive end, California
Jordan played in a 3-4 scheme similar to the one the Chargers run at California. He’ll fit in nicely opposite Luis Castillo. In drafts with less D-line depth, Jordan would be a top 10 pick.
19. New York Giants select Mike Pouncey, center/guard, Florida
The success of brother Maurkice Pouncey will cause a team to draft the slightly inferior Mike higher than he should go. Mike said his goal is to be drafted higher than his brother, but he’ll fall one spot short of matching Maurkice’s draft slot.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Da’Quan Bowers, defensive end, Clemson
Once in the conversation for the No. 1 pick, Bowers’ knee injury will cause him to slide. If a team like the Buccaneers doesn’t take a shot at his tremendous upside, he could very well fall out of the first round.
21. Kansas City Chiefs select Anthony Castonzo, offensive tackle, Boston College
At this point in the draft, the value is found on the offensive line. The Chiefs could use an upgrade at the position and don’t really have dire needs elsewhere.
22. Indianapolis Colts select Nate Solder, offensive tackle, Colorado
The Colts are desperate to upgrade their offensive line and this is a perfect year to do it. They are able to snag the third offensive lineman off the board at pick No. 22. In most years, that would be a pipe dream.
23. Philadelphia Eagles select Jimmy Smith, cornerback, Colorado
Assuming the Eagles don’t make a run at a free agent like Nnamdi Asomugha, they will need to find depth at cornerback. Smith has scared some teams off with character concerns, but his talent is enticing.
24. New Orleans Saints select Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Iowa
Remarkably, the incoming defensive line class is so deep that there’s still fantastic talent to be found this late the round. It will be a case of the rich getting richer, as some elite teams see great D-line prospects fall to them.
25. Seattle Seahawks select Cory Liuget, defensive tackle, Illinois
Don’t rule out a surprising QB selection (maybe TCU’s Andy Dalton) in this position. Failing that, the Seahawks will add the very young and raw Liuget to a defensive line with more than a couple holes.
26. Baltimore Ravens select Jonathan Baldwin, wide receiver, Pittsburgh
The Ravens are way too old and too slow at wide receiver. This pick is a bit of a reach because Baldwin is still very raw, but the Ravens can’t afford to pass on his ability.
27. Atlanta Falcons select Kyle Rudolph, tight end, Notre Dame
It’s hard to gauge whether the Falcons consider their need to add depth on the defensive line to be more important than finding Tony Gonzalez’s eventual replacement.
28. New England Patriots select Mark Ingram, running back, Alabama
The Patriots will do everything they can to trade this pick and they should be able to find a suitor among the long list of teams who will still need a quarterback at this point. Bill Belichick knows that if he trades back into the early 2nd round, the player he wants (Ingram) will still be on the board.
29. Chicago Bears select Gabe Carimi, offensive tackle, Wisconsin
Set aside questions about Jay Cutler’s toughness. It’s undeniable that the Bears need to do a much better job protecting their quarterback. Drafting an offensive tackle is the best way to move in the direction. The Bears love Carimi.
30. New York Jets select Akeem Ayers, linebacker, UCLA
The Jets have a scary defense, but it’s surprising how little their pass-rushing OLBs contribute. Vernon Gholston will finally be cut and the team will take another crack at getting some production from that position by selecting Ayers.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers select Aaron Williams, cornerback, Texas
Once again, the Steelers are without any glaring holes on either side of the ball. One area that could be upgraded is cornerback and Williams makes a lot of sense at this point in the first round.
32. Green Bay Packers select Cameron Heyward, defensive end, Ohio State
In most years, Heyward would have been off the board much earlier. That’s how deep this year’s class is at his position. The Super Bowl champs already have an elite defense and it will get even better with Heyward lining up opposite to Clay Matthews.