The NFL’s next few months will make for an intriguing 32-piece jigsaw puzzle. The first pieces will be put into place in the coming weeks, when free agency opens. Everyone wants to talk about Robert Griffin III and where the Heisman Trophy winner will end up going in April, but several things need to fall into place before we can peg Griffin to an appropriate suitor.
Teams are interested, sure, but knowing just which team will have to mortgage its draft (and possibly its future) on the young man is a bit more complicated than merely pegging him to a team with need at the position. By the end of March, we’ll know some very important things, including:
1. What the Saints are going to do with Drew Brees: Brees may be the darling of New Orleans and the king of the Saints locker room, but he’s also an aging quarterback asking for Tom Brady money. That means $63 million over the next three years. That’s a lot of money for a 33-year-old quarterback. The Saints could place the franchise tag on Brees before next Monday, but that would mean they couldn’t use the tag on Carl Nicks, their superb guard. Could Brees hit the open market? It’s quite possible. And if he does, that makes things awfully interesting.
2. What the Colts are going to do with Peyton Manning: It’s all but understood that Manning will be a free agent come mid-March, but which team will roll the dice and pay big bucks for this version of No. 18?
3. What the Packers are going to do with Matt Flynn: After his six-touchdown performance vs. the Lions in Week 17, it was all but assumed that Matt Flynn was going to be the hottest free agent on the market. With his quarterbacks coach Joe Philbin now the head coach in Miami, South Florida seems like an awfully logical destination for Aaron Rodgers’ longtime backup. But now there’s talk of the Packers placing the franchise tag on Flynn, making him one of the top 5 paid quarterbacks in the league, and earning him $7 million more than starter Aaron Rodgers next season. If Flynn isn’t franchised, he’ll be a far more expensive option than Griffin III. He’ll also be ready to play, right away.
Predicting where Brees, Manning, and Flynn end up, first, is essential before even considering where RG3 suits up.
Here’s how I see it all shaking out:
1. The Saints place the franchise tag on Nicks, allowing Brees to flirt with some other teams, before he ultimately re-signs with New Orleans. He’ll retire in black and gold.
2. Manning is released by the Colts at some point over the course of the next two weeks, causing a media frenzy over which team he signs with. He and his agent Tom Condon meet with Washington, Miami, Arizona, Seattle and the Jets, before going the Kurt Warner route, signing with the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals have one of the best young defenses in the league and arguably the best wideout in the game.
Pressed on it this weekend at the Combine, both general manager Rod Graves and coach Ken Whisenhunt played it coy, insisting they were happy with the quarterbacks they have in house. But I could see them pulling the trigger on the opportunity to land Manning. “I’m not going to get into those scenarios,” Whisenhunt said on Thursday. “I think Rod Graves, our general manager, said it best, we’re always looking for opportunity with players. I don’t think that’s any different from any team in the league.” Manning goes to the desert, Reggie Wayne comes along with him, Kevin Kolb is released, and suddenly, the Cardinals are a very scary team with Super Bowl dreams.
3. The Packers opt against placing the franchise tag on Flynn and he instead signs a free-agent contract with the Dolphins and his ex-coach, Joe Philbin.
Again, this is all speculation. But that’s the beauty of playing soothsayer on Feb. 28.
To even start to play with RG3’s future, you need to decide the fates of Brees, Manning, and Flynn. It’s in the Rams’ best interest to trade the pick before any of this happens, of course, but they might not be able to.
Now that we have played psychic with an eighth of the league’s starting quarterbacks’ futures, let’s dig into our first mock draft after the NFL Draft Scouting Combine. Disagree? Let me know about it!
1. Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford: I’ve read a lot of articles and tweets over the past couple days suggesting that RG3 “won” the combine this weekend in Indianapolis. I’m not quite sure what that means, though.
Andrew Luck’s still the consensus top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and everyone I’ve spoken to still has the Stanford star and former high-school valedictorian as the top-rated quarterback on their draft boards.
Did Griffin run a faster 40? Sure. Will he go before Luck because of it? No.
2. *Washington Redskins: (via trade with St. Louis): Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor: Though St. Louis general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher would likely prefer to trade this pick outside of the conference, Washington will end up making the most aggressive (and fruitful) play for RG3.
Furthermore, there’s history here. Rams president Kevin Demoff has a strong relationship with Redskins front-office honcho Bruce Allen, while Jeff Fisher and Mike Shanahan have a rich friendship that spans decades. Though I feel a bit like Bill Simmons with his fascination with hypothetical NBA trades, I think Washington has the goods to get this done and I just don’t see Cleveland or Seattle finding a way.
Sources say the Rams are asking for the equivalent of the No. 1 overall pick in exchange for Griffin. If you reference the tried and true trade value chart, that’s 3,000 points — a whole, whole lot. The ‘Skins — desperate for a franchise quarterback and a return to relevance in the NFC East — could give the Rams the sixth overall pick (1,600 points), their second (520 points) and third (240) round picks, as well as their first-round pick for next year. That’s a king’s ransom and should be enough, but if the Rams need a veteran player, the ‘Skins could throw one in the mix, too. RG3 to D.C. Mark it down!
3. Minnesota Vikings: Matt Kalil, OT, USC: Vikings general manager Rick Spielman went above and beyond to stress that they were sticking with Christian Ponder as their quarterback, despite the heinous fashion in which he ended the 2011 season.
Minnesota’s in a good spot, here, with the third pick because they desperately need help at offensive tackle, too.
Kalil, the younger brother of Panthers center Ryan Kalil, is an All-American tackle who flat-out dominated the competition in the Pac-12 last season. He’s a 6-foot-7, 305-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: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU: So, the Browns miss out on Flynn, Manning, Brees, Luck and Griffin III. Though I’ve seen several mock drafts slotting Alabama running back Trent Richardson to Cleveland with the fourth overall pick, I can’t see any team taking a running back over a corner of Claiborne’s caliber; no matter how good the tailback is.
Cleveland looks at its draft board and opts to take the best player available in the LSU product, a guy most scouts are saying has an even better pre-draft grade than Patrick Peterson, Claiborne’s college teammate and the fifth overall selection from a year ago.
The league’s a passing one now. You can’t have too many elite cornerbacks. Joe Haden and Claiborne would make for one heck of a starting CB duo.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Trent Richardson, RB: The Greg Schiano era begins! The Buccaneers have a new coach, plenty of salary cap room and a lot of young pieces.
Tampa Bay fell apart after a 4-3 start last season, but I actually don’t think the Bucs are that far away from being relevant again. Though I think the Bucs would love to see Claiborne slip to them at 5, they can’t go wrong with giving young quarterback Josh Freeman the best running-back prospect to enter the draft since Adrian Peterson.
I know a lot of folks are down on the running back position, noting that a running back-by-committee approach is a far wiser way to spend funds than going with one high-priced guy, but Richardson is the rare talent that’s worth the investment.
6. St. Louis Rams (via trade with Washington): Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State: The Rams’ front office would be more than happy with things shaking out this way. In addition to getting the Redskins’ first rounder in 2013, the Rams get Blackmon and additional second- and third-round picks on Day 2.
Blackmon’s been 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 its new front office and head coach a guy to get the local fan base pumped about.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Quinton Coples, DE/DT, North Carolina: Jacksonville’s D showed flashes a year ago, but is still missing an elite pass-rushing threat from the outside. Coples would give the Jacksonville fans something to be jazzed about on the defensive side of the ball.
An absolute star at the Senior Bowl a few weeks back, his stock will only continue to rise throughout the workout process next month.
Michael Floyd, the wide receiver out of Notre Dame, could be intriguing, here, too, but I think Jacksonville scoops up Coples.
8. Miami Dolphins: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford: Though Iowa tackle Riley Reiff is the second-rated tackle on a lot of pundits’ boards right now, I actually like Martin as a future pro a bit more.
With Jake Long locked in at left tackle and Mike Pouncey the center for the long-term future, the Dolphins could do a lot worse than plugging Martin in at right tackle.
That’s three top 20 picks across the offensive line. Philbin’s an offensive guy.
9. Carolina Panthers: Devon Still, DT, Penn State: Draftniks are divided on Still. He had an inconsistent and underwhelming first few years at Penn State, then busted onto the scene and dominated the Big Ten, earning conference player of the year honors last season.
Addressing critics at the combine, Still told reporters, “I think hands down I’m the best defensive tackle. I want it more. I was able to take over a lot of games." The Panthers gave up 130 yards per game on the ground last season and will undoubtedly be looking to beef up the interior of their defensive line.
I like Still as a good fit, here.
10. Buffalo Bills: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama: Though he was considered a first-rounder beforehand, Upshaw played himself into the top 20 with his dominant performances in January’s BCS National Championship Game and his impressive week of Senior Bowl practices.
Upshaw is “scheme versatile” (Now, drink!) and fits the Bills’ new 4-3 defense well. Buffalo desperately need a pass-rushing threat, finishing with just 29 on the year in 2011, good for 29th in the league.
Adding Upshaw to a front seven that already includes his college teammate Marcell Dareus would be wise.
11. Kansas City Chiefs: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa: There’s an obvious Scott Pioli-Kirk Ferentz connection here, but that link didn’t result in the Chiefs drafting Bryan Bulaga a few years earlier when everyone assumed it would.
Reiff’s a tremendously skilled tackle, capable of replacing Barry Richardson at the right tackle in KC’s offense. Reiff is 6-5, 310 pounds and needs to be coached up a bit. At 11th overall, he’s certainly worth the investment.
12. Seattle Seahawks: Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina: Ingram solidified himself as a top-20 pick with a dominant week of Senior Bowl practices. Capable of playing either outside linebacker or defensive end, he’s a pass-rushing force who can cover tight ends in the passing game, too.
Seattle’s got needs at wideout and the local fan base may be pushing for a quarterback here, but I think they go with Ingram, the 6-2, 270 pound scheme versatile defender.
13. Arizona Cardinals: David DeCastro, OG, Stanford: What the Cardinals do with both Levi Brown and their quarterback situation will greatly influence their first-round selection this year. They’ve passed on going with an offensive tackle the past three drafts and I think they do so again this time around.
Instead of reaching on a tackle, 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 had at guard for Stanford.
DeCastro earned rave reviews in Indianapolis this weekend, showcasing an ability to draw up the Stanford offense on the white board just as well as Mr. Luck. 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: Less than five days after declaring for the NFL draft, Kirkpatrick was in a rented vehicle that police said had 7.9 grams of marijuana in it.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Kirkpatrick was grilled by teams and media over the weekend about the incident. "It was just me being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the guy that left the marijuana in the car turned himself in," Kirkpatrick said of the incident near Bradenton, Fla. "He didn’t want to put me in that bad situation. He signed an affidavit saying that I was unaware of the marijuana being in the car, and the charges have been dropped.”
Will that be enough for some teams to get over the incident? For many teams, maybe not. For the Cowboys? Sure. A six-foot cornerback 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 cornerback. Kirkpatrick would be a steal at No. 14.
15. Philadelphia Eagles: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College: Though the Eagles’ defense finished the season strong, its linebackers still had issues.
Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo got ripped in the Philly media, but those LBs were a problem all season. Kuechly won the Butkus, Nagurski, Lombardi and Lott Impact Trophy awards last season and has more career tackles (532) than any other player in the draft.
There were questions about his speed heading into the combine, but he put those questions to rest with a blazing 4.5 40-yard dash. He’s been compared to Sean Lee, without the durability and injury issues.
Kuechly’s considered a first-day NFL starter. Slate him into that Philly defense and watch out.
16. New York Jets: Michael Brockers, DT, LSU: No defensive player in this draft has a greater upside than Brockers. Capable of playing either defensive tackle or defensive end in Rex Ryan’s 3-4, the redshirt sophomore is considered a Jason Pierre-Paul-like athletic freak of nature.
At 6-5, 322 pounds, Brockers is surprisingly quick on his feet.
He’s a relentless pass rusher and can stuff the run. "I’m blessed to have this frame and still be quick with it,” Brockers not so modestly told reporters at the combine. "I feel like at 322, I can move a lot better than some other guys can move. So I feel like that’s my biggest strength. How big I am and how quick I am."
The Jets have needs elsewhere, but Brockers fits in Rex Ryan’s defense — both in personality and skill set — quite well.
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 (three arrests, at least one failed drug test, one bar fight, four kids under the age of three), he’s also considered one of the bigger talents in this draft.
With two picks in the first round, Cincinnati can take a gamble on a boom-or-bust pick like Jenkins.
18. San Diego Chargers: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: If free agent Vincent Jackson leaves San Diego this offseason, something that seems to be quite possible, look for the Chargers to scoop up Floyd if he’s still on the board at 18.
The Notre Dame record holder stole the show at the combine this weekend, measuring in at 6-3, 220 pounds, and running the 40 in 4.47 seconds.
He’s had some off-the-field issues with alcohol-related incidents, but has been all aces in the interview process.
19. Chicago Bears: Cordy Glenn, OG/OT, Georgia: 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 an offensive lineman in Gabe Carimi last year and would be wise to take another in Glenn.
The big fella wowed scouts at the combine, showing speed and agility that had reporters suggesting he could play center, guard or tackle at the next level. If he slips to 19th, look for the Bears to scoop him up.
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 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 6-4, 270-pound athlete, Mercilus put up huge numbers in 2011, recording 16 sacks. He might not be a household name at the moment, but I think he finds his way into the top 20 come April.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Mark Barron, S, Alabama: Two defensive backs with their two first-rounders? Really? Yes, really.
Barron, the only elite safety in the draft, was expected to be a top-15 pick prior before a minor injury kept him out of combine workouts. A three-year starter for the best defense in college football, look for Barron to step right in and take command of the Bengals D.
Not the biggest “need” pick here, but the best player on the board. Cincy’s D is awfully good as is; add Barron and Jenkins to the mix and it is even scarier.
22. Cleveland Browns (via Atlanta): Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M: Tannehill’s a fascinating prospect and the Browns are a fascinating team to watch this year. They’re a West Coast offense team and Tannehill’s game greatly matches that attack.
A converted wide receiver, the knock on him is that he’s got just 19 career college starts at quarterback and isn’t ready to play now. I’ve wavered on that opinion, and in the Pat Shurmur/Brad Childress offense, he could make an immediate impact.
Tannehill didn’t play wide receiver because he wasn’t a good quarterback. He played wide receiver because he was an incredible athlete and Mike Sherman needed to find a way to get him on the field. He played quarterback in high school and beat out Jerrod Johnson — a star — for the gig in College Station two years ago.
23. Detroit Lions: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: The last time the Lions went to Lincoln for a draft 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 wideout Alshon Jeffery in the ‘Huskers’ bowl game, but was dominant for much of his college career.
Scouts watching Prince Amukamara’s tapes last year were blown away by Dennard. He’ll be a first-round pick, too.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: I’m sticking with this one. Fleener’s a first-round talent and Pittsburgh seems like an awfully good place for him.
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 make 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 6-6, 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: Nick Perry, DE, USC: As a junior, Perry matured into a pass-rushing force, 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 the type of guy who can provide some pop right away.
There are some question marks over his decision to leave after just one year of greatness, but his stock can only go up with his Pro Day and individual team workouts over the next couple of months.
The Broncos D hit the jackpot with Von Miller a year ago; Perry could be another cornerstone for John Fox’s 4-3 scheme.
26. Houston Texans: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech: Here’s your real combine "winner." Hill was expected to be a second- or third-round selection prior to this week’s activities in Indianapolis. He may have “played” himself into the first round with a tremendous week at the Underwear Olympics.
He excelled, running a sub 4.4 40-yard dash and exhibiting great hands. He’s 6-4 and raw, but isn’t just some tall drink of water.
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. Hill’s a talent to watch. Lining up across from Andre Johnson would give Matt Schaub — when he returns next season — an awfully nice 1-2 combo at wide receiver.
27. New England Patriots (via New Orleans):Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: Wright’s “stock” took a hit by showing up a bit slower and heavier than expected. If he’s still on the board at 27, this is a steal.
28. Green Bay Packers: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox is a big boy, measuring in at 6-5, 300 pounds, but he moves well. The only Bulldog to be voted to the All-SEC team last year, Cox could be the perfect complement to B.J. Raji inside.
Green Bay’s defense wasn’t the same type of unit it was in 2010. There are improvements and upgrades necessary across the board. Starting with a young talent like Cox would be wise.
29. Baltimore Ravens: Peter Konz, OG/C, Wisconsin: With Ben Grubbs’ future unknown, the Ravens could have a bit of work to do on their offensive line this offseason.
I like Konz, the anchor of a very good Wisconsin offensive line that straight up mauled opponents throughout the 2011 season.
Though the Ravens defense isn’t getting any younger, they’d be wise to draft Konz, another young, talented offensive lineman to protect Joe Flacco.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: This may surprise some folks at the outset, but Boykin’s been a talented performer since he first got to Athens.
Boykin doesn’t have a big frame, but he plays taller and stronger than he appears. He’s got great hands, can pull double-duty in the return game, and has a wonderful knack for the ball.
San Francisco would love to grab a playmaking wide receiver here, but they won’t reach to grab one.
31. New England Patriots: Zach Brown, LB, UNC: Brown was a track star and a state champion wrestler in high school and the top defensive performer on a loaded UNC defense last season. He had 105 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions and 13.5 tackles for a loss last year.
Brown says he is open to playing any linebacker spot in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme at the next level, but I think he fits best as an edge rusher.
Bill Belichick takes talent — from all parts of his roster, his practice squad, other teams’ practice squads, and the scrap heap — and finds a way to make it work. Brown could be a guy who steps into a big role on the defense on Day 1.
32. New York Giants: Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama: 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.