The underclassman declaration list is official; 56 juniors have declared for the 2011 draft, an all-time record. Meanwhile, thanks to Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Ryan Mallett, the 2011 first round will be the hardest to project since I began mocking the draft in 2005. Why?
Of the top 12 selections, seven teams could conceivably draft a first round quarterback: Buffalo (3rd), Cincinnati (4th), Arizona (5th), Tennessee (7th), San Francisco (8th), Washington (10th) and Minnesota (12th).
My highest rated quarterback? Blaine Gabbert, 12th overall.
We have a problem.
1. Carolina- D’Quan Bowers DE, Clemson*
The 1st overall pick will likely come down to D’Quan Bowers and Nick Fairely. The selection will be based upon their ability to re-sign double-digit sack artist Charles Johnson, a free agent this off-season. If Johnson leaves, the Panthers will likely select Bowers who works well both as a pass rusher and against the run. If they re-sign Johnson, the Panthers could look to bolster their interior line with the dominant Nick Fairely.
2. Denver- Nick Fairley DT, Auburn*
New coach head coach John Fox will likely shift back to a 4-3 front, leaving holes at multiple positions along the front seven. Nick Fairely would be an instant upgrade at defensive tackle given his ability to dominate against the run as well as penetrate as a pass rusher. If the Panthers select Fairely 1st overall, then the Broncos would select Patrick Peterson to play opposite of Champ Bailey.
3. Buffalo- Cam Newton QB, Auburn*
The Bills will certainly look hard at the quarterbacks available in this class despite the adequate play of Ryan Fitzpatrick. In the end, I believe it will be the controversial, yet unbelievably talented Cam Newton. Remember, the Bills are the same team that took CJ Spiller 9th overall for his play-making ability. At 6’5 250, Newton has no true NFL comparison, given his ability to make plays with his feet as well as his arm.
4. Cincinnati- Patrick Peterson CB, LSU*
If the Bengals fail to re-sign cornerback Johnathan Joseph AND Patrick Peterson is still on the board at #4, then Patrick Peterson WILL be a Cincinnati Bengal. The Bengals, under Marvin Lewis, have made it clear that the most valuable position on defense is the corner position, as shown by the selections of Leon Hall (2006) and Johnathan Jospeh (2007) in the first round. Peterson is a freakish athlete with size who has the ability to play lockdown coverage as well as help in the return game.
5. Arizona- Robert Quinn DE/LB, North Carolina*
The Cardinals will look at either a rush linebacker or quarterback with the 5th overall pick. We’ll know their draft direction when free agency culminates, but if it’s any consolation, I believe they’ll add a veteran to run their offense. Quinn is a ferocious pass rusher who was forced to sit out the 2010 season because of college benefit infractions. However, he has the athleticism, talent, and tape from 2009 that will warrant an early first round grade.
6. Cleveland- AJ Green WR, Georgia*
At this point in the draft process, AJ Green to Cleveland is one of the few consensus predictions. The Browns have an enormous need at the receiver position and Green would instantly augment the development of Colt McCoy and the offense. Green ranks among the top three on most draft boards, and his talent to work all areas of the field will help improve Cleveland’s pass offense.
7. San Francisco- Prince Amukamara CB, Nebraska
The Niners have handed Jim Harbaugh the keys to organization and it will ultimately be his decision with the 7th overall pick. So, will Harbaugh take a quarterback? With no clear-cut franchise quarterback, I believe the answer is no. Harbaugh ran a pro-style offense at Stanford and he may not value Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert as high as others. A new coach will likely mean a roster overhaul over a 2-year period meaning 31-year old corner Nate Clements, who was once the highest paid corner in the league, could be a roster casualty. Amukamara is shutdown cover corner who has all of the tools to excel at the next level.
8. Tennessee- Blaine Gabbert QB, Missouri*
The Vince Young chapter is over, and all of Tennessee will be looking to see who Jeff Fisher brings in to replace him. Fisher could earn himself breathing room if he selects Gabbert as a developmental project. Gabbert is arguably the top rated quarterback in this year’s class given his stellar accuracy and adequate arm strength. The Titans may be an elite quarterback away from returning to playoff contention.
9. Dallas- Marcel Dareus DE, Alabama*
The Cowboys severely lack depth along the defensive line in their 3-4 front. While the team usually drafts skill position players early in the draft, Dareus would be hard to pass up since he is an ideal fit to play the 5-technique role. Dareus is a tremendous block-eater and demands double teams which could propel DeMarcus Ware into the 20-sack club.
10. Washington- Jake Locker QB,Washington
There were rumors last year that the Redskins regime would have taken Locker 4th overall last season had he declared. Of the top quarterbacks in this year’s class, Locker resembles Shanahan’s former quarterbacks the most; Elway, Griese and Cutler. Without a 2nd round pick, the Redskins are the most likely team to take a quarterback in the first round.
11. Houston- Aldon Smith DE/LB, Missouri*
The Texans will almost certainly address the pass defense with the 11th overall pick. They’ll likely stick with first and second year corners Kareem Jackson and Glover Quin and no safety warrants a first round grade, yet. Likewise, they’ll address the pass rush opposite of Mario Williams. Aldon Smith is a relentless outside pass rusher who has the athleticism to stand up in a 3-4 defense and the build to bulk up and stay in a 4-3. His versatility will be valuable in Wade Phillips’ new hybrid defense.
12. Minnesota- Gabe Carimi OT, Wisconsin
The Vikings could take a quarterback with the 12th overall pick, but in this scenario, three signal-callers are selected in the top 10. While Carimi may not be rated as the top tackle by most, he’s a valuable commodity for a team who runs a power running game. Carimi resembles the Vikings offensive tackles better than any tackle in this year’s class, and his ability to dominate in the run game would only help the top running back in the league, Adrian Peterson.
13. Detroit- Derek Sherrod OT, Mississippi State
The current left tackle, Jeff Backus, will be 34-years old next season. He’ll also be a free agent in 2012. Without a clear-cut future starter on roster, the Lions must address depth at the tackle position. Sherrod had a terrific season at Mississippi State and he showed that he is the most balanced tackle in this year’s class both in pass protection and as a run blocker.
14. St. Louis- Julio Jones WR, Alabama*
The Rams will look to add weapons on offensive side of the ball for the emerging Sam Bradford. Jones is the consensus #2 receiver on most draft boards and his big body and route running ability is perfect for the Rams offense.
15. Miami- Mark Ingram RB, Alabama*
It’s unlikely that the Dolphins will bring back Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams who are both free agents this off-season. This leaves a huge void at the running back position. Ingram is a pro-ready tailback who can instantly carry the full workload. The Dolphins will certainly look at the quarterbacks, but since Tony Sparano is on the hot seat, the coaching staff may want to stay conservative and bolster the running game. However, without a 2nd round pick—from the Brandon Marshall trade—the team could trade down.
16. Jacksonville- Ryan Kerrigan DE, Purdue
The Aaron Kampman signing appeared to be valuable, however, he was forced to miss the second half of the season with an ACL tear, his second in two seasons. First round pick, Tyson Alualu, fits nicely as a penetrating tackle, yet there’s still a need for a pass rusher on the outside. Ryan Kerrigan is the type of player Gene Smith loves; high motor, high football IQ, and a proven leader. He’s also a hell of a pass rusher.
17. New England (From OAK)- Cam Jordan DE, California
Outside of Vince Wilfork, not one Patriot lineman played over 50% of the season’s snaps. There’s an obvious need for a 5-technique end who can eat up space and contain inside. Cam Jordan is an elite player who has the experience in Cal’s 3-4 defense to contribute early in New England’s defensive line rotation.
18. San Diego- Jeremy Beal OLB, Oklahoma
Former first round pick Larry English has failed to produce from the outside edge rusher position in the Bolts 3-4 defense. Beal is an ideal fit for the scheme and resembles former Charger Shawn Merriman better than anyone in this class. Beal’s experience as a stand-up rusher as well as in a three-point stance makes him a valuable commodity for a team that runs a 3-4 scheme. He’s currently rated as my top pass rushing prospect.
19. NY Giants Mike Pouncey C/G, Florida
The Giants have a glaring need for depth along the interior offensive line. Long-time starting center Shaun O’Hara missed nearly the entire season forcing the team to shift lineman to different positions. Pouncey’s versatility to play both center and guard make him a valuable commodity for the Giants who have one of the oldest offensive lines in the league.
20. Tampa Bay- Adrian Clayborn DE, Iowa
The Bucs have a need at both end positions. They’ll need an undersized speed rusher on the right side and a penetrating space-eater on the left. Clayborn fits the mold of the left end better than most prospects in this year’s class. He has the ability to get to the pass rusher and stop the run effectively. Clayborn played in Iowa’s 4-3 scheme that has a lot of resemblance to Tampa’s cover-2 defense.
21. Kansas City- Anthony Castonzo OT, Boston College
The Chiefs lack depth at every position along the offensive line. Starting tackles Brandon Albert and Barry Richardson have yet to supplant themselves as legitimate tackles and selecting Castonzo would alleviate the concern if Albert or Richardson kick inside to guard. Under Todd Haley, the Chiefs have been a team that takes the best player available, so this pick is very unpredictable at this point in the process.
22. Indianapolis- Muhammad Wilkerson DT, Temple*
At Temple, Wilkerson was dominant as a versatile lineman who can play multiple positions along a 4-3 front. The Colts MUST address their interior defense and they’ll likely look at the athletic defensive tackles that can work well on all three downs. Wilkerson is a junior prospect that certainly jumps off the tape when you put on the film. He’s an athletic freak with the size and speed to play at the next level.
23. Philadelphia- Brandon Harris CB, Miami*
The Eagles simply do not have a #2 corner on roster. There are rumors that the team will pursue Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency. If they fail to nab a shutdown corner, the team will look for a speedy corner who can play both man and zone. Harris is a fast prospect with excellent closing speed and fluid hips. He’ll likely be a mid to late first rounder in April.
24. New Orleans- Stephen Paea DT, Oregon State
The Saints will look to bolster the pass rush early in this year’s draft. Paea is an ideal fit for Greg Williams’ aggressive 4-3 scheme and he could fit instantly next Sedrick Ellis at the defensive tackle position. The Saints demand athlete and versatile lineman, and Paea fits the bill perfectly. Paea is a workout warrior that should shoot up boards with a stellar Senior Bowl and combine performance.
25. Seattle- Ryan Mallett QB, Arkansas*
Matt Hasselbeck’s days with Seattle are numbered and the team will need to determine the future of the position this off-season. Charlie Whitehurst failed to show that he can take over the reign so a first round quarterback may be needed. Mallett is a strong-armed signal-caller who can make every NFL throw. There are questions about his decision making and leadership qualities, though he certainly has the arm to warrant a late first round grade.
26. Baltimore- Allen Bailey DE, Miami
The Ravens hybrid defensive scheme demands size and athleticism from all positions. Allen Bailey is a perfect fit for the left end role opposite of Terrell Suggs. The defensive line of the Ravens lacks depth and the remaining starters are reaching the down slope of their careers. Bailey is a penetrating, versatile end who can kick inside in passing situations.
27. Atlanta- Kyle Rudolph TE, Notre Dame*
The Falcons have two key weapons in the passing game; Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez; Gonzalez will be 35 next season. The Falcons are a team that runs plenty of two-tight end sets and Rudolph could flourish as the #2 tight end until Gonzalez retires. This pick would be an ideal plan for the future development of the offense.
28. New England- Akeem Ayers OLB, UCLA*
The Patriots demand versatility from their outside linebackers in their base 3-4 defense. The regime usually targets players who fit their scheme and Ayers is an ideal candidate for the SAM linebacker role. Ayers has experience in UCLA’s 3-4 and has the balanced game to play all three downs at the next level.
29. NY Jets- Von Miller OLB, Texas A&M
Despite the impression that they have the best defense in the league, the Jets desperately need help rushing the passer. Von Miller is a fast edge rusher who already has experience Texas A&M’s 3-4 defense. He can work instantly as a third down specialist and his athleticism makes him one of the more pro-ready 3-4 linebackers in this class. Miller registered 17.5 sacks as a junior.
30. Chicago- Nate Solder OT, Colorado
The Bears need serious help in pass protection after allowing a league-high 48 sacks. Solder is an athletic freak who can work well in pass protection and as a mauler in the run game. The Bears will certainly look for a tackle with their first round pick and their selection may be asked to start from day one.
31. Green Bay- JJ Watt DE, Wisconsin*
The Packers desperately need help at the defensive end position in their 3-4 defense. There was little continuity at the position because of injury. The defense loves to rotate lineman and Watt would be an ideal fit in the rotation. Ted Thompson values character and football IQ and Watt certainly possesses both qualities. Watt works well as a pass rusher and can certainly eat up blocks as a 5-technique end.
32. Pittsburgh- Cameron Heyward DE, Ohio State
The Steelers will look to bring in a first round lineman, whether it’s on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. They’ll certainly look at the ends who can play the 5-technique role in their deceptive 3-4 front. – LeBeau loves to rotate lineman and Heyward would fit nicely as a two-down lineman who can eat up space and free their tenacious linebackers.