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 Sunday (or in October, for that matter). This year’s draft, April 28 to 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 still will 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. Even with Andrew Luck returning to Stanford, there are four legitimate first-round quarterbacks (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), Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: Luck is in an entirely different class than Jimmy Clausen. With Luck returning to school, the Panthers are forced to re-evaluate. Are Mallett, Gabbert, Newton and Locker all that much better than Clausen, last year’s second-round pick? I’m not certain. The last time the Panthers had a pick this high, they went with Julius Peppers second overall in 2001. Two years later, they were playing in the Super Bowl. Bowers might not be Julius Peppers right away, but he’s got the potential to be one of the league’s best sack masters. The nation’s leader in sacks (15.5), he’s a beast off the edge. Carolina’s D was even worse than the offense this year. Though this might not wow the local fan base, it’s a pretty surefire pick.
2. Denver Broncos (4-12), Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: No cornerback ever has been drafted second overall, but then, there have been few corner prospects like Peterson. At 6-foot-1, Peterson is one of the largest cornerbacks you’ll see, and he has blazing speed. A playmaker 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), Marcell Dareus, DE/DT, Alabama: There will be folks in Buffalo, which is aching for the team’s first playoff berth since 1999, clamoring for quarterbacks such as Gabbert, Newton and Mallett with this pick, but I think both the front office and coach Chan Gailey believe Ryan Fitzpatrick is, indeed, the quarterback of the future. Kyle Williams was the Bills defense’s breakout player of the year in 2010. The five-year veteran tackle held down the defensive line in Buffalo’s 3-4 scheme. Dareus, fresh off a dominant Capital One Bowl, would make a lot of sense lining up alongside Williams.
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 a replacement for Palmer. But the veteran QB is under contract until 2014, and I don’t see owner 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 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: Still no quarterbacks. I know, crazy. But hear me out. The top senior in this draft, Miller led the Big 12 in sacks in 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, Matt 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 pounds, an elite run blocker (think Keyshawn Johnson or Hines Ward) as well as a tremendous receiving target. Brian Robiskie ended the season on a high note, and Mohamed Massaquoi had a decent year, but neither is a No. 1 wideout. But 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 pounds and blessed with a cannon arm, great speed and even better natural instincts, the 2010 Heisman winner will be awfully hard for new San Francisco GM Trent Baalke and new coach Jim Harbaugh to pass up 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 as a starting Division I quarterback are all red flags. I think his sheer talent and breakout 2010 campaign will be enough to persuade 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), Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: With Vince Young no longer in the picture, quarterback becomes a giant question mark in Tennessee. Rusty Smith can’t be the long-term answer, can he? Mallett became only 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. Give him a year to learn under Kerry Collins, and he, Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt could end up being one of the best 1-2-3s in the NFL.
9. Dallas Cowboys (6-10), Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: 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 such as David Garrard, Rex Grossman and Shaun Hill lit up the Cowboys in 2010. Cornerback and safety are the most pressing needs on the roster. 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. He’d be a welcome addition to the unit.
10. Washington Redskins (6-10), Jake Locker, QB, Washington: Locker over Gabbert? With Donovan McNabb’s days numbered in Washington, I think the Shanahans may be more interested in the four-year starter Locker than the relatively inexperienced Blaine Gabbert. Locker spent two seasons in Steve Sarkisian’s pro-style offense and, though he had a woeful 2010 senior campaign, is still a top 10 prospect in my book. This one may get royally roasted and panned — but I’m not done with Locker just yet. I think he’s got a nice pro career ahead of him.
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 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.
13. Detroit Lions (6-10), Brandon Harris, CB, Miami: Detroit went with a defensive player named Ndamukong Suh in the first round last year. I’d say that turned out fairly well. The Lions could upgrade the unit’s backfield with a corner like Harris. 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 onto the scene in 2010 with an absurd 111 receptions and 20 touchdown grabs in just 12 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 Saturday and had his best effort in a season that was sidetracked early on with a knee injury. 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-1990s.
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 had 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 (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 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, Quinn could be a bit of a character red flag. But at 6-5, 290 pounds 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 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 227.6 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 the team 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 (seven) and forced fumbles (three) 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.