With the coming and going of Saturday’s early entrant deadline, the entire crop of 2011 NFL draft prospects is now set.
Andrew Luck — everyone’s top rated prospect — is going back to school and will graduate from Stanford with a degree in architecture, while Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton and teammate Nick Fairley both decided to leave Auburn early.
There were some no-brainer early entrants — Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, Georgia’s A.J. Green, LSU’s Patrick Peterson — and a few that were absolute head-scratchers (Lawrence Guy, a defensive tackle from Arizona State; Thearon Collier, an undersized wide receiver out of USC).
In the end, this draft class is heavy on defensive line talent, stronger than last year at quarterback and missing that blue-chip left tackle prospect that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent years.
With four teams still battling it out, 28 teams’ draft positions are set. Here’s an early look at how I see April’s first round shaking out.
1. Carolina Panthers (2-14), Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: In hiring Ron Rivera, the Panthers got themselves a head coach who won a Super Bowl as a player (1985) and coached in one as an assistant (2006).
Since taking over as defensive coordinator in 2008, his Chargers defense was consistently one of the best units in the league.
Though many pundits seem immediately to assume the Panthers will adopt the 3-4 system Rivera employed in San Diego, he might not. Remember, Rivera is familiar with the 4-3 from his time under the late Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and the Cover-2 from his days running the Chicago defense with Lovie Smith.
My top two rated players in this draft are Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Panthers fans may be clamoring for a quarterback or some sort of offensive weapon after a 16-touchdown season, but none of the available quarterbacks in this crop are worthy of the top spot, let alone going before Bowers or Peterson. The nation’s leader in sacks (15 1/2), Bowers is a beast off the edge and a rare pass-rushing threat. Though this may not wow the local fan base, it’s the right pick.
Could he be the next Bruce Smith? I wouldn’t go that far, but he’s got some incredible potential.
2. Denver Broncos (4-12), Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: No cornerback ever has been drafted as high as second overall, but then, there have been few corner prospects like Peterson.
At 6-feet-1, Peterson is one of the larger cornerbacks you’ll ever see, and he has blazing speed, too. 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. The offense in Denver, believe it or not, was pretty good in 2010. Tim Tebow appears to be the quarterback of the future, too. Yet John Fox has needs all over his new defense. Adding Peterson would be a heck of a start in the rebuilding process.
3. Buffalo Bills (4-12), Marcell Dareus, DE/DT, Alabama: There are plenty of folks in Buffalo aching for the team’s first playoff berth since 1999 and clamoring for a new quarterback to be the face of the franchise for the next decade. But from all the talk out of Bills camp this year, it appears coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix believe Ryan Fitzpatrick is, indeed, the quarterback of the future in upstate New York.
Kyle Williams — a five-year veteran out of LSU — was a revelation at nose tackle in 2010. The undersized defensive tackle held down the defensive line in Buffalo’s 3-4 scheme. Everyone’s talking about Nick Fairley after his dominant BCS Championship Game, but I actually like his in-state rival Dareus’s game and NFL potential a bit more.
Fresh off a superb Capital One Bowl, I could see Dareus getting the nod over Fairley and being the man for Buffalo, lining up at DE in the 3-4 and upgrading the Bills defense immediately.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12), Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: Forget any talk of a new coach and quarterback in Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer both will be back in 2011.
Though A.J. Green sitting there available at No. 4 will be awfully tempting, the Bengals rush defense appears to be more of a priority than wide receiver.
In Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley and Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati already has a nice young core of targets. The defensive line got one stud in last year’s draft in Carlos Dunlap.
Look for the unit to pick up another in the player whose stock has shot up like a rocket this week — Fairley.
5. Arizona Cardinals (5-11), Von Miller, DE/OLB, Texas A&M: Five straight defensive players to start an NFL draft? And still no quarterbacks taken? You bet.
My top-rated senior in this draft, Miller led the Big 12 in sacks in both his junior and senior seasons.
Miller is so versatile that he had a position created for him — the joker. He followed up a 17-sack junior campaign with a fine senior season, recording 9-1/2 sacks, 14-1/2 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 quarterback (perhaps a Kevin Kolb, a Marc Bulger, a Donovan McNabb or a Billy Volek) and address their woeful pass rush.
Last year’s first-round pick Dan Williams is coming along at defensive tackle, the Cardinals like 2010 rookies Daryl Washington and O’Brien Schofield, Darnell Dockett is locked up for another five years at one defensive end and Calais Campbell appears to be the guy at the other end spot.
Insert a premier pass-rushing talent off the edge at outside linebacker like Miller, and there’s suddenly some tremendous young talent in the Arizona front seven.
6. Cleveland Browns (5-11), A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: The hiring of Pat Shurmur as head coach in Cleveland means the Browns most likely will run a West Coast offense, something perfectly suited for quarterback Colt McCoy. Now, the young quarterback just needs some weapons.
Insert the 6-4 Green, the best receiver in this draft, and a guy who truly can do it all.
In three years at Georgia, Green recorded 166 receptions for 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns. There are definite needs on defense and Mike Holmgren has a history of making the most out of receivers taken in later rounds, but Green is just too much of a talent to pass up at No. 6. This is a perfect fit.
7. San Francisco 49ers (6-10), Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn: At 6-6 and 250 pounds and blessed with a cannon arm, great speed and even better natural instincts — I’m putting this out there — I like the controversial Newton more than fellow underclassmen Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Mallett.
And yes, I know I may be the only one on this island right now.
There are obvious question marks with Newton: Heat surrounding his past, the fact that he ran into trouble at Florida, 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 get all that. But I also think his size, speed, strength and breakout 2010 campaign will be enough to convince the Niners to invest in him.
Listen, there are a ton of questions to be answered and even more poking and prodding than what Tim Tebow faced last year.
But in the end, I think new coach Jim Harbaugh sees a wonderful quarterback prospect to mold and president/CEO Jed York sees a way to make a big splash and a perfect match out in San Francisco.
8. Tennessee Titans (6-10), Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: With Vince Young no longer in the picture in Nashville, the position becomes a giant question mark. As for Mallett being selected before Missouri’s Gabbert, I know I may be in the minority here, but I like Mallett’s game and makeup a bit more.
Mallett became 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.
Sure, there are some worries about his footwork and a public intoxication arrest on his record won’t thrill NFL front offices, but give him a year to learn under a veteran quarterback, and Mallett, Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt could end up being one of the best 1-2-3’s in the NFL.
9. Dallas Cowboys (6-10), Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: The 2010 season didn’t go exactly as planned for the Cowboys D, as second- and third-tier quarterbacks such as David Garrard, Rex Grossman and Shaun Hill lit them up.
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 Rob Ryan’s unit.
10. Washington Redskins (6-10), Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: I’m not nearly as high on Gabbert as some of the other draftniks out there and have him behind both Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett on my overall board — but the junior has the size and arm strength that scouts like.
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.
Could you think of better coaches and teachers than the Shanahans?
11. Houston Texans (6-10), Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina: The Texans were 4-2 when linebacker DeMeco Ryans suffered a season-ending injury, and they never recovered from the loss.
Houston finished 32nd in pass defense and 29th overall in defense, and missed the playoffs for the ninth straight year.
Defensive coordinator Frank Bush is gone, Wade Phillips is in, and here comes the 3-4 defense.
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 and with tremendous pass-rushing skills, Quinn should make for a mighty nice fit in the Texans’ new 3-4 defensive scheme, either at OLB or DE.
He led the ACC in tackles for a loss in 2009 and was expected to be a first-team All-America candidate this year. And there are no real character issues here — he’s a good kid who made a mistake.
12. Minnesota Vikings (6-10), Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple: Who?! This year’s Tyson Alualu special — an unknown guy who goes in the top 15 — very well could be the 6-5, 305-pound Wilkerson. The Williams Wall appears to be done in Minnesota, meaning there’s a giant void to be filled up front. One or two quarterback prospects still could be on the board here, but I think Minnesota rolls the dice on this big boy instead.
A two-time All-MAC selection, Wilkerson was the Owls’ team MVP and the unit’s leader in 2010. He could bring that moxie to Minny.
13. Detroit Lions (6-10), Brandon Harris, CB, Miami: Yes, another defensive player flies off the board in the top 15. 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 defensive backfield with an elite corner like Harris, who is a top 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), Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson and the rest of the Rams wideouts are all nice secondary options, but Sam Bradford needs a big, physical go-to guy.
Jones could be that man. A 6-2 physical target with elite blocking skills (compared to Hines Ward by some), he’ll immediately upgrade the Rams offense.
Jones doesn’t have the 4.3 40 time, but he’s not afraid to go across the middle and use his frame. The Rams need a guy like Jones.
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 and the Dolphins will always be a run-first team.
Both Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown are free agents-to-be, and the Dolphins offense was a weekly horror show this year.
Ingram is the top back in this draft and arguably the only running back worthy of a first-round pick in this year’s crop. They call that a perfect match.
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), Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: I’d say the Patriots did fairly well in the 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 loading up with another elite defensive player who’s ready to contribute immediately.
Clayborn didn’t have a big senior season but often saw double teams throughout the year. A solid pass rusher and a talented run defender, he’s also a Kirk Ferentz guy, which never hurts.
18. San Diego Chargers (9-7), Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri: San Diego’s defense finished the season ranked No. 1 overall but lost coordinator Ron Rivera to Carolina. The Bolts could use another pass rusher at outside linebacker.
Insert Smith, one of the draft’s more intriguing prospects. Though he played just two years at Missouri and missed some of his sophomore season with a broken leg, Smith was a high-impact player when he was actually on the field.
In 2009, his freshman campaign, he recorded 19 tackles for a loss and 11-1/2 sacks. Smith should make for a nice fit in San Diego’s 3-4 defense.
19. New York Giants (10-6): Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: The Giants offensive line — once the gold standard in the NFL — isn’t getting any younger and struggled at times in 2010. 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.
Giants fans will want that gaping hole at middle linebacker addressed, and perhaps they will at some point in the draft — but not in the first round. Sherrod at 19th overall is an absolute steal.
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.
21. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6), Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia: In Eric Berry, Glenn Dorsey, Javier Arenas and Tyson Jackson, the Chiefs already are loaded with top SEC talent on defense.
Houston, who waited until the final day before the Jan. 15 deadline to make his early entrant announcement, could be the natural fit to eventually replace Mike Vrabel at the OLB spot in Kansas City.
A 6-3, 260-pound pass rushing threat, Houston could join the suddenly unstoppable Tamba Hali to form one of the better young outside linebacker pairs. Houston recorded 10 sacks in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme in Athens this season.
22. Indianapolis Colts (10-6), Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: At 6-9, 320, Solder is a mountain of a man. Peyton Manning’s offensive line did a solid enough job in 2010, but there are improvements to be made at the tackle spots.
Solder is a terrific pass protector and very well could be the guy to watch Manning’s blind side as he enters the twilight of his career.
Jerry Hughes offered next to nothing as a first-round pick in 2010; Solder could contribute right away.
23. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6), Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida: Like his brother Maurkice last year, Pouncey is the top-rated interior lineman in this year’s draft. Michael Vick was sacked twenty times out of the shotgun in 2010 and the Eagles offensive line struggled with injuries.
Pouncey, who can play both guard and center, is the type of versatile piece that could help make the Philly offensive line a better unit.
24. New Orleans Saints (11-5), Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State: An absolute monster who’ll shock the world at the NFL Scouting Combine’s bench-press competition in a few weeks, Paea is a 6-1, 310-pound block of wood with surprisingly nifty footwork. He was born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga. The Big Easy could be his next stop.
25. Seattle Seahawks (7-9), Jake Locker, QB, Washington: Matt Hasselbeck isn’t getting any younger, Charlie Whitehurst might not be the answer and Pete Carroll’s old offensive coordinator at USC — Steve Sarkisian — was Locker’s head coach the past two years at Washington.
A local kid, many thought Locker would have been a top-five pick had he entered the draft last year. A four-year starter at UW, Locker could be a nice pickup this late in the first round for Seattle.
26. Baltimore Ravens (12-4), Aaron Williams, CB, Texas: The Ravens got some great production out of Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb at the cornerback spots this year, but they could use some more talented playmakers at the position.
A two-year starter for Mack Brown and Will Muschamp at Texas, the 6-1, 195-pound Williams is a physical cornerback with deceptively fast speed. He’s a skilled tackler who rarely gets beaten deep. After what happened on Saturday with the Steelers’ Antonio Brown, I’m sure plenty of Ravens fans know someone like that could be helpful.
27. Atlanta Falcons (13-3), Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State: A four-time All-ACC performer, Hudson is ready to contribute for an NFL team immediately next season. Atlanta’s offensive line was solid all season, then got the business from the Packers on Saturday. At the guard spots, Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock are serviceable pros. Hudson already could be the superior blocker in both the rushing and passing game.
28. New England Patriots (14-2), Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: Patriots fans are likely still too stunned from Sunday’s loss to think about the draft, but with the Oakland first-rounder, this one, and the Panthers’ second-round selection, New England has three of the first 33 draft picks. Not bad.
The offensive line, though solid all season long, could use some younger legs. Standing at 6-7 and 310 pounds, Castonzo’s a local kid who excelled for four years at B.C. Castonzo started as a freshman in 2006, protecting Matt Ryan in Chestnut Hill as a freshman, and only got better as the years went on.
A 53-game starter in college, he fits the Belichick model to a T.