With the Jan. 15 NFL draft early entry deadline for underclassmen in our rearview mirrors, we figured it’d be a good time to provide an updated version of our NFL mock draft.
There were a few no-brainer decisions from underclassmen over the past couple of weeks — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III weren’t coming back to school for redshirt senior seasons. But there also were some head-scratchers. Darron Thomas, a run-first quarterback out of Oregon, pulled a shocker by announcing Saturday he’d be leaving school early, just hours before the deadline.
Other early entrants that caused a bit of confusion in NFL circles included Chris Givens, a receiver out of Wake Forest, underwhelming Ole Miss offensive tackle Bobby Massie, and LSU wideout Rueben Randle.
In total, 60 non-seniors will be draft-eligible for April’s three-day bonanza. I’ve got several going in my first round. Here’s how I see the first 32 picks going, as of now:
Note: This mock draft does not account for potential trades. It seeds the four remaining playoff teams based on their order of finish in the regular season.
* Denotes a coin toss to determine draft order between two teams. Coin tosses occur at NFL Draft Scouting Combine in February.
1. Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford: Luck’s going to be an Indianapolis Colt. That’s not even an issue. The real question is, “What happens to Peyton Manning?” Because of the new collective bargaining agreement rules, it’s not a crippling proposition to have both Manning’s and Luck’s salaries on the books. Would Luck be open to that? Would Manning? As I’ve been saying since Week 4, what Indianapolis decides to do with Manning this offseason should make for one of the most intriguing personnel moves of all time.
2. St. Louis Rams: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State: In all his years as head coach in Tennessee, Jeff Fisher never had a wide receiver as talented as Justin Blackmon. And no, 2010 Randy Moss was not the same guy as 1998 Randy Moss. Though I could still see St. Louis trading this pick to Miami, Cleveland or Washington for a bounty of draft picks, I think the Rams do the right thing and give Sam Bradford an elite playmaker to grow old with. Blackmon’s compared to everyone from Dez Bryant to Terrell Owens. He’s that good. St. Louis hasn’t had a receiving talent like this since Torry Holt in the "Greatest Show on Turf" era. Blackmon would give their new front office and head coach a guy to get the local fan base pumped about.
3. Minnesota Vikings: Matt Kalil, OT, USC: The way Christian Ponder finished the season this year in Minnesota, I’m not exactly convinced he’s the long-term guy for the Vikings. The defensive backfield was an absolute disaster in 2011, too. But with the third selection, I think the Vikings will go with Kalil, the younger brother of Panthers center Ryan Kalil. The All-American tackle flat-out dominated the competition in the Pac-12 this season. He’s a 6-foot-7, 295-pound pass protector who has surprisingly quick feet. He’s the top tackle in this draft, and that’s not even debatable. I think he’ll be protecting the blind side of the Vikings’ QB — whomever that may be — for many years to come.
4. Cleveland Browns: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor: If there’s one guy who’s got the moxie and experience to take a longtime losing franchise and turn it into a winning one, it’s Robert Griffin III. Long considered the joke of Big 12 football, Baylor was taken to new heights by Griffin, who turned the program into one of the nation’s most exciting. The Browns haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002, and the last quarterback to start a postseason game was Kelly Holcomb. Though you could make the argument that Colt McCoy had no weapons and he’s not to blame for yet another lost season by the Lake, I can’t see the Browns passing on Griffin if he’s available at No. 4. You know all about his mobility and athleticism, but his arm is what impresses me most. He’s got a cannon that can battle those late-December Cleveland winds.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU: The Buccaneers have yet to hire a new head coach, but no matter who ends up leading them into battle on Sundays next season, I think Claiborne’s the wise pick at No. 5. Some scouts like Claiborne even more than last year’s fifth overall pick and Claiborne’s former defensive backfield partner at LSU, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. The Tampa Bay defense, once considered one of the best young units in the league, is an absolute mess. Claiborne would be a much-needed addition.
6. Washington Redskins: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa: This pick should have a giant asterisk next to it because it entirely depends on what a) the Redskins do in free agency, and b) what they’re willing to do to move up to that No. 2 spot. If the Redskins opt to sign Packers backup Matt Flynn in March, look for Daniel Snyder, Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan to grab him a bookend tackle to pair with Trent Williams on the offensive line. Protecting their next franchise quarterback with two Top 10 tackles isn’t the worst thing to do. In a division with DeMarcus Ware, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Jason Babin, it’s almost required.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: The Mike Mularkey era starts in Jacksonville next season. What’s that mean? Well, judging by the Falcons’ offensive attack from the past few years, it’s going to be heavy on the run and have a big emphasis on wideouts. In Jacksonville, there are no No. 1 wideouts. This would be some statement, but I’m this high on Jeffery, the 6-foot-4 playmaker out of South Carolina. New ownership, a new coach, a new offensive game plan — Jeffery would give Blaine Gabbert a go-to target, a la Roddy White or Julio Jones, on the outside.
8. Carolina Panthers*: Quinton Coples, DE/DT, North Carolina: Carolina’s D was burned by early-season injuries to Thomas Davis and Jon Beason. In Coples, the unit will get an elite pass rusher at DE to pair with Charles Johnson in their 4-3 scheme. There’s lots to like about the Carolina offense in 2012; Coples would give them something to be jazzed about on the defensive side of the ball. I’ve seen Devon Still, the Penn State DT, slated here by a few pundits. That’s a possibility, too, but I like the local favorite.
9. Miami Dolphins*: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford: If Miami can’t get an elite QB in the first round, the Dolphins could do a lot worse than locking up another franchise tackle in Martin. Some quarterback — whether it be Matt Moore, a re-signed Chad Henne or a free agent to be named later — would have the amazing luxury of having Jake Long, Mike Pouncey and Martin protecting him for the next decade. Who that quarterback is remains the looming — and most important — offseason question in Miami this offseason. Oh, and finding a head coach, too.
10. Buffalo Bills: Devon Still, DT, Penn State: Marcell Dareus had a strong rookie season and Kyle Williams was lost for the season early on because of injury, but there’s not much else on that Buffalo defensive line. As a team, the Bills combined for just 29 sacks last season (third worst in the league) and gave up 139 rushing yards per game (fifth worst in the league). A 6-foot-5, 310-pound stuffer who can get to the quarterback, Still isn’t a flashy pick, but he makes a whole lot of sense. The Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, lining up with Wililams and Dareus, would give the Bills’ nonexistent defensive line from 2011 a little bite in 2012.
11. Kansas City Chiefs*: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama: The Chiefs lost Jamaal Charles in the second week of the 2011 season, and the offense never rebounded. Charles should be back and healthy next season, but Richardson is the rare running back talent who can completely change an offense. The way this mock draft has unfolded, he’ll be slipping out of the Top 10 — something few scouts or experts expect. I’ve seen Richardson going as high as No. 4 to Cleveland in some mock drafts. I don’t think he falls any further than No. 11. The last running back prospect I felt this strongly about was Adrian Peterson. Six teams passed on him. At least half those teams regret doing that.
12. Seattle Seahawks*: Nick Perry, DE, USC: On the surface, this might appear to be your classic “cop-out” pick, just attaching a onetime Pete Carroll top recruit at USC to the Seahawks. But this actually makes a whole lot of sense. As a junior, Perry matured into a pass-rushing demon, leading the Pac-12 in sacks and serving as the anchor on a young Trojans defensive line. Perry excelled in Monte Kiffin’s pro-style defensive scheme and is one of the guys I see flat-out dominating at the Combine. His stock can only go up. And oh yeah, Carroll recruited him. Did I mention that? This is a good fit.
13. Arizona Cardinals:David DeCastro, OG, Stanford: The Arizona Cardinals’ defense was one of the best stories of the season’s second half. The offense struggled mightily, though. Look for Arizona to bolster the interior of its offensive line, adding a mauler like DeCastro in the middle. Lost in a lot of the Andrew Luck and Jonathan Martin draft buzz this year was the season DeCastro has had at guard for Stanford. He’ll help open up holes for a run game that hasn’t been very good in years.
14. Dallas Cowboys: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama: During the BCS Championship Game, two players really stood out to me: Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw and Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. A 6-foot-3 cornerback (think Patrick Peterson size) with top-flight speed (think Patrick Peterson speed), Kirkpatrick is the rare tall cornerback who can keep up with the game’s fastest receivers (think Patrick Peterson). The Cowboys are desperate for some depth and some young talent at conrnerback. A recent run-in with the law may impact Kirkpatrick’s draft stock, but he won’t slip beyond the 14th pick.
15. Philadelphia Eagles: Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina: Though the Eagles defense finished the season strong, their linebackers still had their issues. In Brown — a guy I like more than Boston College’s Luke Kuechly — the Eagles would get the type of player who’s in on every play, with a ton of potential to get better. A 6-foot-2, 230-pound tackling machine, Brown’s a guy who changes games. Watching a UNC game is like watching a Zach Brown highlight reel. The Eagles could use some of that resourcefulness roaming the middle.
16. New York Jets: Mark Barron, S, Alabama: The Jets should have a new look on offense under Tony Sparano and could certainly use a legitimate right tackle to replace the Robert Turner/Wayne Hunter duo. But with no elite prospects left on the board, I don’t see New York reaching on taking an offensive lineman for the sake of taking one. Barron’s a tough-nosed hitter who can make an impact in the pass coverage game, too. He can start right away.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (via Oakland): Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: Jenkins is no angel. He’s had multiple issues off the field and was dismissed from the Florida Gators football squad by Will Muschamp a year ago. Talent-wise? He’s got Top-10 ability. Considered a bit of a gamble because of the off-the-field stuff, he might not even be on some teams’ boards. If there’s one franchise willing to roll the dice, it’s the Bengals.
18. San Diego Chargers: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama: Though he was certainly a first-rounder beforehand, Upshaw played himself into the Top 20 with his dominant performance in the BCS Championship Game. With seven tackles and a sack, Upshaw was the anchor of an Alabama defense that absolutely sucked the wind out of what was expected to be a competitive game. The Larry English era can officially come to an end. Slide Upshaw into the San Diego linebacker corps, and the entire unit becomes all the more dangerous.
19. Chicago Bears: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin: Apparently, one of the main reasons Jerry Angelo is no longer the GM in Chicago is his inability to build an adequate offensive line. That horrific offensive line, paired with Jay Cutler’s injury, ended up costing the Bears a spot in the playoffs this year. The Bears drafted one Badgers offensive lineman in Gabe Carimi last year and would be wise to take another in Konz. He’s a mauler who can play either guard or center at the next level.
20. Tennessee Titans: Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois: The Titans were a win away from a wild-card berth in 2011 and did that without much impact from the team’s defensive ends. The Tennessee defense was 24th in the league against the run and an embarrassing 31st in the league in sacks. Mercilus, a guy not everyone has listed as a first-round pick, can do one thing and one thing for sure — get to the quarterback. A 6-foot-4, 270-pound athlete, Mercilus put up huge numbers in 2011, recording 16 sacks. This might not be a household name at the moment, but I think he finds his way into the Top 20 come April.
NOTE: The final four playoff teams’ draft order is subject to change based on postseason results.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College: The 2011 winner of the Butkus Award, Kuechly recorded a school and ACC record 532 tackles in just three seasons at Chestnut Hill. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Kuechly is more than merely a tackle machine that cleaned up the mess from an awful B.C. front four. He has good speed, can rush the passer and can defend the pass. Cincinnati can go a variety of ways with its two first-round picks this year. The Bengals can’t go wrong with picking up an elite cornerback talent like Jenkins and a potential 10-year starter at linebacker in Kuechly.
22. Cleveland Browns (via Atlanta): Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: I’m sticking with this one, pairing Robert Griffin III with his longtime No. 1 Kendall Wright for years to come in Cleveland. The rival Bengals hit the jackpot with a rookie quarterback and a top wideout last year, riding Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to a playoff berth this season. Perhaps RG3 and Kendall Wright can bring the same sort of magic to Cleveland. The Browns have had one of the worst receiving corps in the league for the past three seasons (Fact: No one’s ever started a Browns receiver on a fantasy team since Braylon Edwards left town). Wright — a 5-foot-10 playmaker who was used a million different ways by Baylor coach Art Briles — could be that No. 1 guy the team so desperately needs.
23. Detroit Lions: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: The last time the Lions went to Lincoln, Neb., for a first-round pick, it worked out fairly well. Look for Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew to poach another one of Bo Pelini’s defensive talents by scooping up Dennard. After missing some of the early part of the season because of an injury, Dennard finished the season as one of the Big Ten’s few shutdown corners. He struggled with South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery in the Huskers’ bowl game, but he has enough good game film to ensure he’s still a first-round selection.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: If the success of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Aaron Hernandez, and Vernon Davis showed us anything this season, it’s that a dynamic tight end can turn a good offense into a great one. Heath Miller’s had a great run in Pittsburgh, but Fleener would be a tremendous addition to the already potent Steelers offense. Andrew Luck’s top target at Stanford, Fleener is a 6-foot-6, 240-pound athletic big man who could make an immediate impact on the next level. Other pundits have different tight ends as their top prospects at the position. I love Fleener’s NFL potential and think he’s the first one off the board come April.
25. Denver Broncos: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State: I had Worthy listed as a Top 5 pick in my mock draft before the season started. He didn’t dominate the Big Ten like I’d imagined he would, but still had a solid season. If anything, it appeared as though he didn’t play at the same level from week to week. Put him on a defense that includes guys like Champ Bailey, Von Miller, D.J. Williams, and Elvis Dumervil, have John Fox coach him up, and I think Worthy’s ready to blossom in Denver.
26. Houston Texans: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: I can’t speak enough about how impressed I was with the Houston Texans’ defense this season. For the 31st-ranked unit from 2010 to finish the 2011 season ranked in the Top 5 of just about every defensive catetgory — and do so without Mario Williams — that could be the best turnaround story of any team in the league. The Texans have gone with a defensive player in the first round seemingly every year, and in 2011 they spent their first four selections on defensive players. It paid off, as both Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt were stars for the first Texans playoff team in franchise history. I think they go offense in 2012. Michael Floyd suffered an injury in the Champs Sports Bowl that may cost him come draft time, but I still think he’s a first-round pick. Lining up across from Andre Johnson would give Matt Schaub — when he returns next year — an awfully nice 1-2 at wide receiver.
27. New England Patriots (via New Orleans): Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina: With two picks at the end of the first round, don’t be shocked if Bill Belichick does what he usually does and trades down, getting some picks for future drafts in the process. When you know you’re not getting fired and you know you’re always a win-now team, you have the luxury of doing such things. If the Pats keep this pick — which they very well might — look for them to scoop up Ingram, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound pass rusher who could either play the defensive end spot in a 4-3 alignment or outside linebacker in a 3-4. Belichick likes malleable players in his front seven. Ingram’s the type of pass-rushing talent the Patriots would love to add to the mix.
28. Green Bay Packers: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: It became increasingly obvious as the season went on that the Packers missed Cullen Jenkins’ presence in the middle. With the Giants running all over them Sunday and very little pass rush coming from the inside, look for the Packers to scoop up a defensive tackle who can play the end spot in Dom Capers’ 3-4. I have them going with Cox — a 6-foot-4, 300-pound All-SEC defensive tackle out of Mississippi State. Cox started nearly every game he was in Starkville for Dan Mullen, dominating the line of scrimmage. He’d make an immediate impact in Green Bay.
29. New York Giants: Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama: How about those Giants? Listed with 100-1 odds to win the Super Bowl after a loss to the Packers in Week 13, New York’s now two victories away from its second Super Bowl win in four years. The Giants have passed on drafting a linebacker in the first round for many years, going with defensive line and defensive back talent instead. If Hightower — the second-rated inside linebacker talent on my board — is available, they should grab him. A tackling machine out of Nick Saban’s defensive star factory down in Tuscaloosa, he could be an opening-day starter in 2012.
30. Baltimore Ravens: Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: With Matt Birk retiring at the end of this season and Ben Grubbs scheduled to hit the free-agent market, the Ravens could have a bit of work to do on their offensive line this offseason. If Glenn slipped all the way to 30th, Ravens fans from Pikesville to Parsonsburg would be awfully happy. A 345-pound beast of a man who can play right away at the next level, Glenn’s a Day One NFL starter. The Ravens defense isn’t getting any younger. I can’t see them passing on Glenn if he slips this far in the first round.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Chase Minnifield, CB, Virginia: Virginia’s become a bit of a cornerback factory over the past few years. UVA corners Chris Cook and Ras-I-Dowling were early NFL picks in the past two years, and Minnifield could go as high as the first round. The son of former Browns Pro Bowler Frank Minnifield, Chase Minnifield’s been a star for Mike London’s Virginia Cavaliers the past two years. A smart, disciplined corner, Minnifield had 13 interceptions during his time in Charlottesville, often going up against the opposing team’s No. 1 wideout. At 6 feet, 185 pounds, he has the brains, size and speed to be a special player at the next level. The 49ers defensive backfield played above expectations in 2011. Adding Minnifield to the mix would only make an already great defense better.
32. New England Patriots: Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers: Bill Belichick knows Rutgers football, and I’m certain he knows what Mohamed Sanu brings to the table. In addition to being a fan of Greg Schiano’s work in Piscataway, Belichick’s son played long center for the Scarlet Knights in 2011. What Belichick likely saw this season from Rutgers was an offense that was entirely built around Sanu, a 6-foot-2 playmaker who can do it all. Sanu had 104 catches this season and more than 200 in three seasons at Rutgers. The Patriots’ offense doesn’t need any more young playmakers, but with two picks in the first round, look for Belichick to scoop up a guy he’s likely quite familiar with.