(1) CAROLINA PANTHERS: A.J. Green, WR, 6-4, 212 - Georgia
Andrew Luck's decision to remain at Stanford was a heartbreaker for the Panthers, and it altered the dynamics of the entire first round of the draft - but major impact players are still available at the top. It will be interesting to see if Carolina gives quarterback Jimmy Clausen another full season to progress as a starter after his miserable rookie campaign, or if they go after one of the underwhelming veteran quarterbacks likely to be on the market, but either way, they'll need to provide their signal caller with enough support to energize a virtually non-existent passing attack. A.J. Green is the most dynamic and freakishly gifted WR talent available in the draft since Calvin Johnson, and he would be a game changer for the Panthers. Carolina's other young receivers may develop, but they lack Green's superstar potential. Steve Smith is aging, and he desperately needs a running mate to lighten his burden. The decision makers will be tempted to select an impact defensive player (Bowers, Peterson or Fairley), but the woeful Panther offense simply needs more help than the relatively solid defense.
Another scenario: With Luck out of the equation, the Panthers may try to trade back, add an extra pick, and grab one of the draft's four first-round worthy quarterbacks (Gabbert, Newton, Mallett or Locker), all of whom are too flawed to grab with the #1 overall pick (partly due to the massive guaranteed bonus money that a QB selected in that slot would command). It's also within the realm of possibility that the Panthers could trade back a few spots and still grab A.J. Green. The value of the #1 pick has dropped considerably with Luck unavailable, making this a very tough call - frankly, there's about a 50/50 chance that the Panthers trade back here.
(2) DENVER BRONCOS: Patrick Peterson, CB, 6-1, 222 - LSU
The Broncos will attempt to re-sign veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, but even if they do, Peterson makes sense here. The combination of Bailey and the absolute "can't miss" talent of Peterson would give Denver one of the best cornerback duos in the entire NFL and would create nightmares for opposing WRs. If Denver doesn't manage to re-sign Bailey, the addition of Peterson becomes downright critical. The Bronco defense needs a lot of help, but this is a great start. The fact that Peterson is also a lethal kick/punt returner adds to his already sky high value.
(3) BUFFALO BILLS: Nick Fairley, DT, 6-4, 298 - Auburn
Ryan Fitzpatrick is only 28, he had a surprisingly solid season for the Bills last year, and Chan Gailey has called him his QB for 2011. That said, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see Buffalo grab a quarterback in this slot, if they fall in love with one of the boom or bust candidates available. Nonetheless, they do have bigger needs, and adding Fairley to their defensive line gives them a cornerstone player to build around, immediately upgrading one of the league's worst defenses. Equally fearsome as a run defender and pass rusher, Fairley would fill a critical hole for the Bills.
(4) CINCINNATI BENGALS: Da'Quan Bowers, DE, 6-4, 275 - Clemson
Bowers led the nation with 15.5 sacks, and he would give the Bengals a dynamic pass rusher to complement rising star Carlos Dunlap. While some have boldly compared him to Julius Peppers, Bowers simply isn't as freakishly gifted; that said, even as a poor man's Peppers his gifts are substantial enough that he'll make an immediate impact for the Bengals and give offensive coordinators headaches for years to come.
(5) ARIZONA CARDINALS: Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, 6-5, 268 - North Carolina
Quarterback is a possibility here, but I believe it's more likely that the Cardinals will go after a savvy veteran (possibly Donovan Mcnabb) to run the show as they continue to develop 2nd year QBs John Skelton and Max Hall. Quinn is a dream fit at OLB in the Cardinals' aggressive 3-4 scheme, and he'll infuse youthful speed, power and athleticism into an aging linebacker corps.
(6) CLEVELAND BROWNS: Julio Jones, WR, 6-4, 220 - Alabama
Full disclosure: My original mock was going to have Jones selected by the St. Louis Rams in the middle of round one - still a likely destination for him, if he slips past this slot. But I suspect that new Browns coach Pat Shurmur and club president Mike Holmgren, both staunch proponents of the west coast offense, will want to amp up the freshly installed system by reaching for a new toy: A 6-4, 220-pound stud WR who runs a sub 4.5 forty and can instantly step in as the team's #1 receiver. This is a glaring need area for the Browns, and in a draft thin on elite WR talent, the choice makes perfect sense here - even if it is a bit of a reach - because elite wideouts simply won't be available in round two. With Colt McCoy, Peyton Hillis and Jones, the nucleus of a promising young offense would be taking shape in Cleveland.
(7) SAN FRANCISCO 49ers: Blaine Gabbert, QB, 6-5, 235 - Missouri
Jim Harbaugh's biggest decision in year one will be which direction to go at quarterback. He'll likely want to mold one to his liking, which means drafting a rookie, and he'll spend countless hours agonizing over the mixed bag of first round quarterback talents available, none of whom are Andrew Luck. Ultimately, I think the choice will be Gabbert. His combination of size, quick release, arm strength, and particularly his intelligence (excellent student and 1st team academic all-Big 12 selection) will give him the edge with a coach who understands that the position is played mostly between the ears. Gabbert will need to make a huge transition from the spread to the west coast offense, but he'll soak up Harbaugh's lessons and could ultimately thrive.
(8) TENNESSEE TITANS: Von Miller, OLB, 6-2, 243 - Texas A&M
The Titans' franchise is in flux, making this a very tricky call here, but Miller is the best player still on the board. The 2010 Butkus Award winner as the nation's best linebacker, Miller has a relentless motor and the strength, versatility and athleticism to be special in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. This versatility was on display during Senior Bowl practices in front of a legion of NFL scouts, likely locking up a top ten selection for this future star.
(9) DALLAS COWBOYS: Adrian Clayborn, DE, 6-3, 286 - Iowa
Dallas has most of the pieces in place on offense (when healthy), but the defense needs major upgrades, and they begin here by selecting Clayborn, an excellent fit for the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme. His senior season was relatively disappointing when compared to his stellar junior campaign, but he is a fundamentally sound and highly skilled player, a good leader (he was an emotion-pumping team captain at Iowa), and he could be a major contributor and potential star for the Cowboys in the years ahead.
(10) WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Jake Locker, QB, 6-3, 230 - Washington
Mike Shanahan loves 6-3 quarterbacks with gunslinger tendencies and cannons for arms (John Elway, Jay Cutler), and Jake Locker is his kind of project. In fact, it was heavily rumored that Shanahan would have snatched Locker with the 4th overall pick last year, if Locker had declared. He's an immensely gifted athlete who runs a 4.5 40 (and, for good measure, can throw a baseball 95mph); his passing mechanics are smooth, he can throw with touch and velocity, his mobility is elite, he has experience in a pro-style offense, and his character intangibles are unquestioned - in short, the sky is the limit for his potential. Unfortunately, his wildly uneven senior season and less than ideal completion percentage raised major red flags about his ability to do it all consistently. My guess is that Shanahan takes Locker under his wing and lets him carry a clipboard for a season while learning life-lessons from a QB who may have finally developed some resiliency: Rex Grossman.
(11) HOUSTON TEXANS: Marcell Dareus, DT, 6-3, 309 - Alabama
Dareus would bring a powerful and explosive presence to Houston's defensive line, and they'll be grateful if he's still available with this pick - there's no way he falls past it. He's a good fit for new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme - versatile enough to fill the DE slot or shift over to nose tackle with equal run stuffing, pass pressuring ferocity.
(12) MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Cam Newton, QB, 6-6, 250 - Auburn
The Brett Favre saga is over, and the Vikings are back in the market for a quarterback. Newton's combination of size, athleticism and arm strength is remarkable, although his brilliance in the run-first spread option offense in college is no indicator of how he'll be able to read NFL defenses, go through progressions and function in a pro-style system. Like all of the first-round caliber quarterbacks available in this draft, he is a boom or bust prospect, but he's well worth a shot with the 12th selection. The Vikings have another young prospect in the fold in Joe Webb, but his potential upside isn't as high as the controversial and polarizing Newton's. If the Vikings go this route, it might be wise to grab a veteran in free agency (Marc Bulger?) to take the snaps for a while as Newton develops.
(13) DETROIT LIONS: Prince Amukamara, CB, 6-0, 205 - Nebraska
Amukamara could potentially go as early as the 5th pick, to the Cardinals, who also need cornerback help, so the Lions -whose cornerback situation is now the glaring need area on a young and rising team - will be thrilled that he's available here. This is the quintessential no-brainer draft scenario in which the best player available also happens to fit a team's most desperate need. If the Lions land Amukamara on draft day, there will be much celebrating in their war room.
(14) ST. LOUIS RAMS: Cameron Jordan, DE, 6-4, 287 - California
The Rams need wide receiver help in a big way, but with A.J. Green and Julio Jones off the board and with no other WR worth the value of the 14th pick, I think the Rams will go defense here and grab the best player on the board. Jordan opened eyes with his dominance in Senior Bowl practices, where he was virtually unblockable. If the Rams grab him as a bookend to rising talent Chris Long, they'll quickly have the most talented young defensive end duo in the NFL.
(15) MIAMI DOLPHINS: Mark Ingram, RB, 5-10, 215 - Alabama
Miami has essentially been a run-first team since the Marino era, they aren't built to be a pass-first team in 2011, and Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown are both free agents. Williams is likely gone, and even if they manage to retain Brown, they'll need a young stud to ensure the potency of their running game. Ingram has the prototypical size, speed, toughness and instincts to flourish in the modern NFL, and he's this draft's best running back prospect. The 2009 Heisman winner also has great intangibles - don't be surprised if he quickly becomes the new face of the Miami franchise.
(16) JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, 6-4, 263 - Purdue
Kerrigan's strength - along with his off-the-charts hustle, work ethic and intangibles - will endear him to any team using a 4-3 scheme. My guess is that Jacksonville snags him here in the 16th slot. The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous 1st team All-American, Kerrigan is a coach's dream and the kind of player and leader that teammates will want to be in the trenches with.
(17) NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (from Oakland): J.J. Watt, DE, 6-6, 292 - Wisconsin
Watt has the size and power to be a tremendous DE in a 3-4 scheme, he has the frame to get even bigger, and I suspect that Bill Belichik will fall in love with the upside of this still slightly raw prospect. Remarkably, Watts came to Wisconsin as a walk-on. He has since developed rapidly enough to declare a year early for the draft as a legitimate first-round prospect, and he has the potential to become a major cog in the New England defense.
(18) SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, 6-4, 258 - Missouri
The way Smith has been flying up draft boards since declaring, it wouldn't stun me if he winds up being a top 10 selection, but for now I'll predict that the Chargers grab him with the 18th pick. Even during an injury-plagued sophomore year he was good enough to be named 1st team All-Conference, and he was scary good as a redshirt freshman. He has the superior athleticism to project as an edge rusher extraordinaire in the NFL, and his skill-set will likely remind the Chargers of Shawne Merriman.
(19) NEW YORK GIANTS: Derek Sherrod, OT, 6-5, 305 - Mississippi State
There are several late-first-round level talents available at offensive tackle, and I suspect that Sherrod will be the first one off the board. The Giants need offensive line help, and Sherrod gets the nod here due to his battle-tested SEC pedigree and his potential to become a career starter at left tackle and long-term protector of Eli Manning's blind side.
(20) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Akeem Ayers, OLB, 6-4, 255 - UCLA
Raheem Morris is now mixing a lot of 3-4 schemes into his defense, and he is openly on the lookout for explosive edge rushers to amp up an anemic Tampa Bay pass rush. Ayers brings this ability along with the fluid movement and ball skills to be a solid cover linebacker. He's an ideal and versatile fit for the varied schemes the Buccaneers will be using in 2011 and presumably for many seasons ahead.
(21) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Stephen Paea, DT, 6-1, 312 - Oregon State
Defensive tackle is a need area for the Chiefs, and Paea is a great fit here. Physically, he's the strongest player in this draft, and he'll be one of the strongest players in the entire NFL. This brute strength, combined with his wide-body frame and consistently high effort level, should enable Paea to have a lengthy career as a run-stuffing trench warrior.
(22) INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Nate Solder, OT, 6-8, 315 - Colorado
The Colts' offensive line has been shaky of late, and protecting their future hall of fame quarterback - and allowing him the extra split-second he needs to truly pick apart a defense - has to be top priority. Solder might not be ready to start in week one, but he has the potential to eventually be a pro-bowl caliber left tackle. A converted tight end, his athleticism and quick feet are elite for the left tackle position, and his 6-8 frame can easily carry an additional 20 pounds of muscle. He should be entrenched as a starter by 2012.
(23) PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Brandon Harris, CB, 5-11, 195 - Miami
The Eagles were torched by several teams in pass coverage last season, making Harris a key pickup here. He has excellent speed, athleticism, cover skills and instincts, and although he'll make the occasional mental error, he's a legitimate first-round talent who should become a very solid NFL corner.
(24) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Drake Nevis, DT, 6-1, 292 - LSU
The Saints need to improve the middle of their defense, and the local kid gets the nod here. Nevis needs to get a bit stronger, but he has great leverage, a great motor, the ability to fight off double teams, and he'll immediately solidify the Saints' defensive line, giving them a much better chance to stuff runs at the line of scrimmage.
(25) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Ryan Mallett, QB, 6-6, 238 - Arkansas
The Seahawks will look to re-sign aging veteran Matt Hasselbeck, and Charlie Whitehurst has the tools to become a serviceable NFL starter, but I don't think Pete Carroll will resist the opportunity to grab a potential future franchise quarterback in this slot if Mallett is still on the board. Mallett's key weaknesses - poor mobility, sloppy footwork and a slow release - are glaring, but so are his strengths: Great size, vision and the ability to make every imaginable throw with a rocket-launching arm that will instantly rank with the strongest in the NFL. The fact that he put up phenomenal numbers for two seasons against SEC competition doesn't hurt, and he became very adept at going through his progressions in a pro-style offense. There are questions about his character, and the Paul Bunyan-armed Mallett sometimes refers to his own "legend," but Pete Carroll worked well with big egos at USC, and this is a potentially great marriage of coach and player.
(26) BALTIMORE RAVENS: Anthony Castonzo, OT, 6-7, 308 - Boston College
The Ravens need to upgrade their offensive line, an issue that was most glaringly apparent in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh in which Joe Flacco was constantly harassed and sacked five times. Castonzo could step in and start right away at right tackle, allowing the Ravens to make key shifts in their line for an improved unit in 2011.
(27) ATLANTA FALCONS: Kyle Rudolph, TE, 6-6, 265 - Notre Dame
Tony Gonzalez mulled retirement before deciding to return for one more season, but the Falcons still need to address a position of need for the future, and Rudolph has the talent and tools to quickly become an elite NFL tight end. The fact that he could transition in and learn on the job from one of the greats at the position during his rookie campaign would only be a bonus, and the one-two TE punch of Gonzalez and Rudolph would make the Falcons more dangerous in 2011.
(28) NEW ENGLAND: Torrey Smith, WR, 6-1, 205 - Maryland
New England's offense functioned beautifully during the second half of the 2010 season in spite of the lack of an elite deep threat or true #1 receiver. One could argue that the Jets found a way to expose this weakness during their playoff matchup, and I expect Belichick to address it quickly, in a maneuver that could make Tom Brady and company virtually unstoppable again. Torrey Smith doesn't have the size of A.J. Green or Julio Jones, but he has strength and explosive (4.37) speed, and he will "take the top off" of any defense, further opening things up for New England's underneath receivers. Smith has great intangibles, he's only scratched the surface of his potential, and he also happens to be a dynamic return man.
(29) NEW YORK JETS: Cameron Heyward, DE, 6-5, 288 - Ohio State
The Jets' defense was lacking in pass rush punch in 2010, and they could use the versatile Heyward in a variety of ways to quickly shore it up. A terrific physical talent with great intangibles and work ethic, Heyward has tremendous late first round value, and he could blossom into a star in Rex Ryan's system.
(30) CHICAGO BEARS: Gabe Carimi, OT, 6-7, 315 - Wisconsin
The Bears' line gave up a league-high sack total last season, and upgrading the protection for Jay Cutler has to be their number one off-season priority. The much-maligned but uber-talented Cutler has proven to be lethal when he has ample protection, and Carimi would be a dream fit for the Bears, if he's available in this slot. The Outland trophy winner has elite pass blocking skills and terrific footwork, and he projects as a career left tackle.
(31) PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Mike Pouncey, OG, 6-4, 310 - Florida
Mike Pouncey's twin brother Maurkice is already a Steeler, and he had a stellar rookie season at center. The brothers have made it no secret that they want to play together again, and Mike is the best offensive guard available in this draft. Putting the Pouncey brothers side by side would solidify the interior of the Steeler offensive line for the next decade or so.
(32) GREEN BAY PACKERS: Mikel LeShoure, RB, 6-0, 230 - Illinois
With this pick, the world champion Packers take their already lethal offense to the next level. Capable of being an elite, every-down back, the powerful LeShoure averaged a phenomenal 6.0 yards per carry while gaining 1,697 yards and rushing for 17 touchdowns last season for Illinois - and he didn't fumble once. The always character-conscious Packers will investigate his checkered early days at Illinois, but if they're convinced he's matured, they could add a new dimension of explosive power-running with this selection.