Carolina Lucks out in first mock

For fans of 12 NFL franchises, the next few days and weeks will be dedicated to diligent postseason preparation and the playing out of potential Super Bowl scenarios.

For fans of the league’s other 20 teams, it’s time to start thinking about that three-day stretch in April in Manhattan. Yes, the NFL draft might be four months away, but it’s already on the minds of every fan whose team was eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday (or in October, for that matter). This year’s draft, April 28-30 at Radio City Music Hall, could be unlike any other draft before it.

A potential work stoppage could serve as a black cloud hovering over  the usually joyous weekend. If the players union and owners do not come to terms before April 28, the draft will still go on, but the entire three days will be dominated by the "Will there be a season?" question.

What would a work stoppage mean for the actual crop of 2011 draft prospects? Well, with the possibility of a rookie salary cap being put in place for the 2012 season via a new collective-bargaining agreement, several underclassmen — many of whom might not have gone pro in other years — could roll the dice and enter the fray in 2011.  In the next few days, several juniors and draft-eligible sophomores will declare their pro eligibility, even if many of the decisions will have pundits scratching their heads. These decisions will no doubt be criticized by several media members but could make a lot of economic sense.

This year’s crop of draft prospects is a unique one. If each of them leave school early and come out, there are five legitimate first-round quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert). There’s also a bevy of defensive line prospects worth taking in the first round. Whereas, in other years, left tackles have been all the rage, only three to five will be really worth considering for a first-round pick.

So, we do this with caution. And we also do this because it’s pretty damn fun. Assuming every underclassman comes out (big assumption, I know), here’s how I see the first 20 picks shaking out in April.

1. Carolina Panthers (2-14): Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford: A high school valedictorian, the son of a former NFL quarterback, an honors student at an academic school and a Heisman finalist as a sophomore, Luck is considered as close to a sure-thing NFL prospect as you’ll find. The issue isn’t whether Luck will be the top pick in the draft, it’s when. There’s been a lot of talk out of Palo Alto that Luck, who is committed to his studies, will stay in school. But with whispers that coach Jim Harbaugh might bolt for an NFL gig or maybe even one in Ann Arbor, Luck could leave early for the NFL this week. Would owner Jerry Richardson, whose payroll was only $77 million in 2010, be willing to pay the big bucks usually doled out to a No. 1 overall quarterback pick? With a can’t-miss prospect like Luck, you’d better believe it. As for 2010 second-round pick Jimmy Clausen and his future in Carolina? Hey, every team needs a backup.

2. Denver Broncos (4-12): Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: No cornerback has ever been drafted second overall, but then, there have been few corner prospects like Peterson. At 6-foot-1, Peterson’s one of the larger cornerbacks you’ll ever see, and he has blazing speed, too. A playmaker both on defense and in the return game for Les Miles’ Tigers, Peterson could be the heir apparent to the top corner spot in Denver. With Champ Bailey set to become a free agent, his days in Denver could be over. Denver has needs all over its defense. Adding Peterson would be a solid start in the rebuilding process.

3. Buffalo Bills (4-12): Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix went to the Clemson well with last year’s first-round selection, running back C.J. Spiller, and could go right back there with the top defensive end prospect in this year’s draft class. After battling injuries and underwhelming critics in his first two years at Clemson, the 6-4, 280-pound Bowers made his presence known this year, leading the nation in sacks with 15.5. A beast off the edge, he could line up at DE next to DT Kyle Williams and immediately bolster the Buffalo defensive line. There will be folks in Buffalo — aching for the team’s first playoff berth since 1999 — clamoring for quarterbacks Cam Newton or Ryan Mallett, but I think both the front office and coach Chan Gailey believe Ryan Fitzpatrick is, indeed, the quarterback of the future.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12):  A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: It was rather fitting that the Bengals’ 2010 season ended with Carson Palmer throwing an errant pass out of bounds in the red zone, wasn’t it? Again, there will be those in Cincinnati screaming for Newton or Mallett as a replacement for Palmer. But the veteran QB is under contract until 2014, and I don’t see Mike Brown giving up on him just yet. Instead, look for Cincinnati to take the top receiver in a receiver-heavy draft. T.O. and Ochocinco, co-hosts of an entirely unwatchable program on a channel called Versus, could both be done in Cincinnati, and young targets Jerome Simpson, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham showed some real flashes down the stretch this season. Add in the electric 6-4 Green, and there’s suddenly a heck of a lot of firepower on that Bengals offense.

5. Arizona Cardinals (5-11): Von Miller, DE/OLB, Texas A&M: The top senior in this draft, Miller led the Big 12 in sacks in both his junior and senior seasons. He harasses opposing quarterbacks with a nonstop motor. He had a fine senior campaign, recording 9.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for losses, six batted-down passes, three forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles. Quarterback is certainly a need in Arizona, but I can’t see Ken Whisenhunt and Co. spending a first-round pick on a young gunslinger. Instead, look for the Cardinals to try to acquire a veteran QB (perhaps a Kevin Kolb, Matthew Hasselbeck,  Donovan McNabb or Billy Volek becomes available) and for Arizona to address its woeful pass rush. Last year’s first-round pick Dan Williams is coming along at DT, the Cardinals like rookie O’Brien Schofield, Darnell Dockett is locked up for another five years at one DE and Calais Campbell appears to be the guy at the other end spot. Insert a premier pass-rushing talent like Miller, and there’s suddenly some great talent in the front seven.

6. Cleveland Browns (5-11): Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: I think Mike Holmgren and Co. give Colt McCoy a wideout threat with whom to grow old instead of a top-flight defensive prospect. Jones is an absolute beast and, at 6-4, 210, is an elite run blocker (think Keyshawn Johnson or Hines Ward elite), as well as a tremendous receiving target. Brian Robiskie ended the season on a high note, and Mohamed Mossaquoi had a decent year, but neither is a No. 1 wideout. But Mr. Jones is. If the Bengals take Green and the Browns take Jones, the ongoing comparisons between the two — it has been going on for  three years, dating to their freshman seasons — will continue in Ohio into the next decade.

7. San Francisco 49ers (6-10): Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn: At 6-6, 250 and blessed with a cannon arm, great speed and even better natural instincts — it’ll be awfully hard for the San Francisco front office (whomever that may be) to pass up the chance to draft the 2010 Heisman winner at No. 7. There are obvious question marks with Newton: some character issues dating to his Florida days, his comfort in an offense other than Gus Malzahn’s spread and only one year spent as a starting Division I quarterback are all red flags. I think his sheer talent and breakout 2010 campaign will be enough to convince the Niners to invest in him, though. Remember, Sam Bradford came from a version of the spread offense at Oklahoma. How’d that work out?

8. Tennessee Titans (6-10): Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: By making this choice, the Titans would scoop up an elite lock-down cornerback with Pro Bowl potential. Though he didn’t rack up the interceptions in 2010, Amukamara (pronounced ah-MOO-kuh-MAR-ah) lived up to the hype: He was an All-American, Big 12 defensive player of the year and Jim Thorpe Award finalist. Chuck Cecil’s defensive backfield got lit up this season. Toss Amukamara alongside Cortland Finnegan at the corner spots, and the pass defense is instantly upgraded.

9. Dallas Cowboys (6-10): Marcell Dareus, DE/DT, Alabama: In DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, the Cowboys have some legitimate stars on their defense. The rest? Well, yeah. This year has not gone exactly as planned for the Dallas D, as second- and third-tier quarterbacks like David Garrard, Rex Grossman and Shaun Hill have lit up the Cowboys in 2010. Cornerback and safety might be more pressing needs for the Cowboys, but Dareus is a top-10 talent who can play the right defensive end spot opposite Marcus Spears and make an immediate impact. The Cowboys had 42 sacks in 2009; they recorded just 30 in 2010. Though he didn’t have the big year a lot of pundits expected in 2010, the 6-3, 310-pound Dareus can play either end or tackle. Even with a somewhat disappointing season, Dareus finished as a third-team AP All-American. He was all over the place in Saturday’s Capital One Bowl. Put him at that DE spot in the 3-4 and watch out for the Cowboys D next year.

10. Washington Redskins (6-10): Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: Redskins fans might be clamoring for a defensive player here, as the ‘Skins D was absolutely atrocious over the second half of the 2010 season. But if Mallett—a 6-7 quarterback with a cannon arm — is available, I can’t see Mike and Kyle Shanahan passing on the opportunity to groom him into the next great Redskins quarterback. Mallett became just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to throw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons and the third to eclipse 3,500 yards passing in consecutive seasons. He vastly improved his accuracy this year. McNabb’s not the long-term answer; nor is Grossman. Mallett, if available, would make a lot of sense here.

11. Houston Texans (6-10): Nick Fairley, DT/DE, Auburn: Houston’s defense was 32nd against the pass and 29th overall in 2010. The Texans were 4-2 when DeMeco Ryans suffered a season-ending injury, and they never recovered from his loss. Fairley recorded 10.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position this season, led the SEC with 21 tackles for a loss and won the Lombardi Trophy. He’ll make a mighty nice interior lineman in a 4-3 and could even fit in as a 3-4 DE if the new defensive coordinator (Wade Phillips, perhaps?) wants to make that move.

12. Minnesota Vikings: (6-10) Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: Joe Webb showed he’s got some skills in Week 16’s win over the Eagles weeks and will have his supporters in Minny, but Gabbert’s an awfully intriguing draft possibility at No. 12 for Minnesota. I’m not nearly as high on Gabbert as some of the other draft pundits out there, and have him firmly behind Luck, Newton, and Mallett on my board—but the junior has the size and arm strength that scouts drool over. I’m still not certain on some of his reads and comfort under center (he played in Gary Pinkel’s spread), but that comes with good teaching at the next level. A first round talent, I could see the Vikes scooping him or Washington senior Jake Locker up here.

13. Detroit Lions (6-10): Brandon Harris, CB, Miami: Detroit went with a defensive player in the first round last year named Ndamukong Suh. I’d say that turned out fairly well. The Lions could upgrade the unit’s backfield with a corner like Harris. Though the junior said last week he was 85 percent sure he was returning to Miami, he’d look awfully good lining up in Gunther Cunningham’s defense. An elite corner prospect and a surefire first-round pick, in my book, I wouldn’t be shocked if Harris works his way into the top 15 come April.

14. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State: As a sophomore, Blackmon exploded on to the scene in 2010, with an absurd 111 receptions and 20 touchdown grabs in just twelve games. A true game-breaker, this is a no-brainer. Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, and the rest of the Rams wideouts are all nice secondary options, but Blackmon could be the go-to guy in St. Louis if he opts to leave school early.

15. Miami Dolphins (7-9): Mark Ingram Jr., RB, Alabama: Any doubts about Ingram’s junior season were erased with an unbelievable performance in the Capital One Bowl. Often compared to Emmitt Smith for his running style, Ingram is an every-down back at the next level. The 2009 Heisman winner ran all over the Michigan State defense on Saturday and had his best effort in a season that was sidetracked early on with a knee injury. Both Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown are free agents-to-be, and the Dolphins offense was a weekly horror show this year. Ingram’s the top back in this draft and arguably the only running back worthy of a first-round pick in this year’s crop. Ingram’s father, Mark? He was Dan Marino’s No. 1 target for a few seasons in Miami in the mid-’90s.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8): Rahim Moore, FS, UCLA: The top safety prospect in the draft, Moore could make an immediate impact similar to that of Earl Thomas and Eric Berry in their first years in Seattle and Kansas City, respectively. Moore made 14 interceptions in his three-year career at UCLA, including an NCAA-best 10 in 2009. Jacksonville’s safeties were lit up all year long. The Jags struck gold with Tyson Alualu last year; this Pac-10 prospect could be the answer in 2011.

17. New England Patriots 14-2 (from Oakland, 8-8): Cameron Jordan, DE, California: The Pats did OK with their 2010 NFL draft, huh? Devin McCourty would have been the league’s defensive rookie of the year if it weren’t for Suh, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have been tremendous, and both Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham have contributed on defense. With the Patriots’ first of two first-round selections (courtesy of the Richard Seymour trade) this year, I can see them grabbing Jordan, a high-energy prospect. One of the few defensive end prospects who played the position in a 3-4 in college, scouts love his size and speed. Jordan’s father, Steve, played in six Pro Bowls in 13 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. And Cameron also has an awesome ‘80s flat-top haircut. Hey, the more you know . . .

18. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina: San Diego’s defense finished the season ranked No. 1 overall but could use another playmaker in the front seven, so insert a pass-rushing talent like Quinn. Suspended for the entire 2010 season for receiving about $5,600 in agent-related benefits and travel accommodations, and Quinn could be a bit of a character red flag. But at 6-5, 290 and with tremendous pass-rushing skills, Quinn should make for a nice fit in San Diego’s 3-4 defense. He led the ACC in tackles for a loss in 2009 and was expected to be a first-team All-America candidate this year. If he’s in the shape people say he is and works out well, he’s a top-20 guy.

19. New York Giants (10-6): Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: The top-rated offensive tackle prospect on my board, Sherrod helped pave the way for a Bulldogs rushing attack that averaged 227.58 yards per game in 2010. The Giants offensive line — it was once the gold standard in the NFL — isn’t getting any younger and struggled at times in 2010. Giants fans will want that hole at gaping middle linebacker addressed, and perhaps they will at some point in the draft— but not in the first round.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6):  J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: Watt’s story is incredible. After transferring from Central Michigan, he worked at a Pizza Hut for six months while waiting to hear from Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema about whether he’d receive a scholarship. A consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection this year, Watt tied for second in the conference in sacks (7.0) and forced fumbles (3) and tied for third with two fumble recoveries. The Bucs struck gold all over in the 2010 draft and became the first team in NFL history to start 10 rookies and finish a season above .500. Gerald McCoy, Roy Miller and Brian Price are three young superstar interior defensive linemen. Watt, a high-energy pass rusher, could join them in forming one of the league’s top defensive lines.