The underreported storyline of the 2012 NFL draft is the way in which the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, negotiated last summer, will impact the final order of the top 10 selections.
Whereas Sam Bradford, Matt Stafford and JaMarcus Russell — all No. 1 draft picks selected in the 2000s — made north of $70 million in their rookie contracts, Cam Newton, the top overall pick of the 2011 draft, inked a rookie deal netting him a little more than $22 million over four years.
Not exactly chump change, but Newton’s deal surely didn’t prohibit the Panthers from signing other talented players. You can argue that Newton — considering what he did for Carolina against what he was paid — was the financially most valuable player in the entire league last season.
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Owning a top-10 pick used to be considered a toxic situation. You were saddled with a $30 million-$80 million obligation to buy a new toy, no one wanted to trade with you, and the veterans in your locker room were well within reason to resent the new addition’s handsome payday.
Now? Top-10 picks make normal money. The playing field is level, making those first 10 selections hot commodities. Though the rookies are the “losers” in the situation — they’ll never see JaMarcus Russell or even Jake Long money again — it’s better for the overall quality of the draft. Teams aren’t cemented to their draft slots.
I can see at least three teams in the top 10 trading their first-round picks, stockpiling later selections in the process. We’ve already seen St. Louis and Washington make a swap. There are likely more to come.
For the sake of this mock draft, though, we’re playing it straight. Here’s our first three-round mock, based on the teams that currently own these selections: 1. Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
The Luck-RG3 “debate” that seems to still exist on a certain TV network is a silly one. Luck’s going to be a Colt, Griffin’s already signing Washington Redskins memorabilia, and the Vikings are on the clock. 2. Washington Redskins: (via trade with St. Louis): Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
Griffin fits into the Shanahan scheme perfectly and has all the moxie necessary to lead a struggling franchise back to the top. He’s already taken Baylor from the basement of the Big 12 to the Alamo Bowl. If he can do that, bringing the Redskins back to the playoffs is nothing. There’s more talent at the wideout position in Washington than there was a year ago. Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan are solid, veteran receivers he’ll click with. There are better days ahead, ‘Skins fans. 3. Minnesota Vikings: Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Not the flashiest of picks, but a wise one. The Vikes are in dire need of help at many positions. They’ve got a terrible defensive backfield, an awful offensive line and are thin all over their defensive front seven. If Christian Ponder’s ever going to succeed as the quarterback of the future, he needs someone protecting his blind side. Kalil’s the top tackle in the draft. I like Morris Claiborne as a future star more, but you can’t go wrong with Kalil. 4. Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Unless Minnesota trades its pick to a quarterback-hungry team, I can see Cleveland going with Richardson, Ryan Tannehill, Morris Claiborne, or Justin Blackmon with this selection. Watching Richardson’s film, I can tell you with no hesitation that he’s the highest rated running back I’ve had on my draft board since Adrian Peterson left Oklahoma in 2007. But is a running back worth the No. 4 overall pick? When undrafted Arian Foster can lead the league in rushing in 2010? It’s a question going back and forth in Cleveland this week. I think the Browns can build an offense around Richardson. 5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Claiborne got a 4 on his Wonderlic. So, what? He’s a top-five talent and could go as high as No. 3 to Minnesota if the Vikings opt to keep the pick. Greg Schiano made a lot of headlines this week for the intensity of the Bucs’ voluntary workouts. That’s good. Did you watch Tampa’s D last season? Horrendous. The Bucs need that kind of intensity. They also need a young defensive back they can rely on. Claiborne’s a star. He’ll start right away for Schiano in 2011, and be a fixture for the next decade in Tampa’s defensive backfield. 6. St. Louis Rams: (via trade with Washington) Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Someone I trust recently said Blackmon will be “something between Hakeem Nicks and T.O.” The Rams would sign up for that for the next 6-10, no? Though the offensive line was awful in 2011, Sam Bradford needs a young wide receiver to grow old with if he’s ever going to reach his full potential. Blackmon’s the guy at No. 6 overall. 7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
Floyd’s been a rising prospect since the NFL Scouting Combine. He owns just about every Notre Dame receiving record and is a legitimate No. 1 target. I’m not giving up on Blaine Gabbert after one bad year. If he can’t succeed with the 7th overall pick as his top receiver, then there’s a problem. 8. Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
I spoke with Tannehill for my piece on FOXSports.com earlier this week, and I think he’s the real deal. I’ve watched his tape, I grilled him on tough questions, and I told him he’s being considered an NFL bust before he’s even been drafted. He handled it all in stride. I think he’s a future star in this league. And I think partnering him with Mike Sherman — his college coach — only gives him a head start. I love this pick for the Dolphins. But then again, what do I know? I thought Cam Newton would be a star right away, too. 9. Carolina Panthers: Fletcher Cox, DT/DE, Mississippi State
At the end of the college football season, I penciled Cox in as a second-round selection. Less than four months later, I’m sold on Cox as a top 10 pick. His draft stock is on fire after a huge week at the combine and a sound pro day. A 6-foot-5, 300-pound run stuffer who can play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3, he’s a young, versatile defensive lineman who could work in Ron Rivera’s defense. Carolina needs to get better on defense. I think Cox makes an immediate impact. 10. Buffalo Bills: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
I’m excited about the Bills’ defense. They paid big bucks to bring in Mario Williams, they get a healthy Kyle Williams back, and 2011 first-round pick Marcel Dareus was just hitting his stride. I’m worried about the offensive line. This one may have everyone scratching their heads, but the guys I’m talking to say Adams is a man whose stock is on the rise. Yes, even with the news of a positive marijuana test at the combine. Adams has the most NFL-ready frame of all the offensive tackles in this draft and from what I’m hearing from a variety of scouts, there’s a lot to like about the Buckeye. The Bills may be “reaching” at 10th overall on a guy who many mock drafts have going in the second round, but if Buffalo wants to protect their $56 million investment under center, they need a left tackle. Adams is that guy. 11. Kansas City Chiefs: Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Defensive tackle is an area of need and the Chiefs defense got bullied a bit at the line of scrimmage a season ago. I’m not a huge Poe fan. I’ve watched his tape and have yet to be blown away by what I’ve seen. He was outplayed by smaller opponents at Memphis. That said, he’s a physical freak of nature and a combine stud. If Pioli and Co. think Romeo Crennel can get production out of him, there’s no reason he can’t be the next great 3-4 nose tackle. 12. Seattle Seahawks: Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina
I look at Melvin Ingram and see the next Aldon Smith. That’s a good thing. In Pete Carroll’s 4-3 defense, Ingram can line up at either outside linebacker or defensive end and rush the quarterback. He was the star of Senior Bowl week down in Mobile and has impressed scouts in workouts and interviews. He’s a smart kid who can get to the quarterback. Great fit for Seattle. 13. Arizona Cardinals: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
What’s up with tackles out of Iowa and short arms? Whether it was Robert Gallery, Bryan Bulaga, or Reiff — the knock is always the same: “The dude’s got short arms.” But at 13th overall, Reiff is a nice pickup for Arizona. He might be better served as a right tackle, but he’s got the goods to play the left side, too. 14. Dallas Cowboys: David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
The Brandon Carr signing makes for a tremendous upgrade at cornerback in Dallas, but there are some who’ll be clamoring for the Alabama safety, Mark Barron, if he’s still on the board here. Quinton Coples will get some love from the Cowboys fans, too. But I think the Cowboys front office (er, Jerry Jones) would be very pleased (and surprised) to see DeCastro still on the board. Guards got big money in free agency this year. Taking one with the 14th pick in the draft isn’t considered too high anymore. 15. Philadelphia Eagles: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
The Eagles can go a few directions here and there are a lot of talented players still on the board. Coples had a monster 2011 season and a solid combine. He could play defensive end or rush the passer from the outside linebacker spot. A lot of draftniks have him going in the top 10. He could be a steal at 15 for Philly. 16. New York Jets: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
This one may have the Jets fans at Radio City jumping off the second level, but it’s a smart play at 16th overall. Gang Green Nation will want a playmaker here, but right tackle has to be the selection. Mark Sanchez got clobbered last year, and that’s because Wayne Hunter and Robert Turner aren’t starters. Martin protected Andrew Luck for the three years Luck played quarterback at Stanford. Now, he’ll protect two first-round picks — Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Tebow. 17. Cincinnati Bengals (via Oakland): Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College
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. An added bonus here? Kuechly’s a local guy, born and raised in Cincinnati. 18. San Diego Chargers: Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama
Upshaw fits San Diego’s defensive scheme quite well and could be the elite pass rusher the defense needed in 2011. He was an absolute stud during his time in Tuscaloosa, owned Senior Bowl week, and was solid during his pro day. 19. Chicago Bears: Michael Brockers, DT/DE, LSU
The Bears have been aggressive this offseason, trading a pair of third rounders for Brandon Marshall, locking up Eric Weems with a long-term deal, and signing Devin Thomas away from the Giants. At the very least, they’ll have a nice special teams unit. The defensive line played poorly last season. Aside from Julius Peppers and breakout talent Henry Melton, there wasn’t much production out of Chicago’s front four last season. Brockers could be a bit of a project, but he’s got huge potential. He had a big combine and could play either defensive tackle or defensive end at the next level. I love him in Chicago’s 4-3. 20. Tennessee Titans: Mark Barron, CB/S, Alabama
Barron slipping all the way to 20th overall? It’s possible. Hands down the best safety in this draft class, Barron could actually play corner at the next level if needed. At either spot, he’s a great pickup for the Titans at 20th overall. They’re going defense with this pick and I can see them snagging the best player on the board. That’s Barron. 21. Cincinnati Bengals: Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
The same thing happens every time I pop in South Carolina tape to watch Alshon Jeffery or Melvin Ingram. I come away most impressed with the cornerback, Stephon Gilmore. He’s fast, smart and reliable. I’ve seen Gilmore going as high as No. 7 to Jacksonville and as low as the middle of the second round. Cincinnati at 21st overall makes a lot of sense. 22. Cleveland Browns (via Atlanta): Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford
The Browns go with a running back with the No. 4 overall selection and get Colt McCoy a go-to target in Fleener with the 22nd. If talents like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have shown us anything, it’s that a big, athletic tight end can take an offense to the next level. Fleener’s just starting to scratch the surface on what he can do. He stole the Stanford Pro Day, clocking between a 4.5 and 4.55 40-yard-dash, while sizing up at 6-5, 240 pounds. 23. Detroit Lions: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Kirkpatrick is the rare tall cornerback who can keep up with the game’s fastest receivers. I’ve heard some scouts say they see him fitting in better at safety at the next level, but I think he could be an elite cornerback. With guys like Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green catching passes, there’s nothing wrong with a big, 6-0 corner if he’s got the speed to keep up. I believe Kirkpatrick has that speed. Detroit needs a cornerback. Hell, they need two. Kirkpatrick’s a nice pickup at 23rd overall. 24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cordy Glenn, OG/OT, Georgia
Glenn’s one of the rare people on Earth who tips the scales at 345 pounds and still runs a sub-5.0 40-yard-dash. The big fella wowed scouts at the combine, showing speed and agility that had reporters suggesting he could play center, guard, or even tackle at the next level. If he slips to No. 24, the Steelers may need to take him. They’ll find a place for him on their offensive line. 25. Denver Broncos: Nick Perry, DE, USC
Perry had a big freshman year, a so-so sophomore year, and a monster junior season. In 2011, he had 9.5 sacks, with five coming in his last four games. He was a talented 4-3 defensive end in college, and though some scouts see him as a 3-4 outside linebacker, I can see him making quite an impact in Denver’s defensive line rotation. 26. Houston Texans: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
Wright’s stock took a bit of a hit when he showed up to the combine a bit heavier and slower than expected. I still see him going in the first round, and if he’s still around when Houston’s on the clock, don’t expect the Texans to take the full 15 minutes. Most often compared to DeSean Jackson for his big-play ability, I’ve been hot on Wright since I saw him toe the sideline for 30 yards on a touchdown run vs. Kansas State. He’s a lightning bolt who possesses good hands and great route-running ability. He’s not built like a Calvin Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald, but he’d be an incredible complement to Andre Johnson in Gary Kubiak’s offense. 27. New England Patriots (via New Orleans): Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State
McClellin’s another guy I have rising rapidly up my draft board. He wasn’t the biggest high school recruit and was never the most heralded NFL prospect at Boise State, but his senior season was a monstrous one. He had 12.5 tackles for a loss, 7 sacks and contributed on 50 tackles. He’s an active defender who could either play the outside linebacker in a 3-4 or a defensive end in a 4-3. He’s most often compared to Mike Vrabel. Belichick and Co. will sign up for that, no? 28. Green Bay Packers: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
David’s another one of my guys who I have going in the first round that most other mocks have in the second. He’s shorter than most linebackers, but he’s athletic, active, and never misses a tackle. He also can rush the passer from the outside. He’s an active defender who could be the other 3-4 outside linebacker that’s been so sorely needed in Dom Capers’ Green Bay defense. 29. Baltimore Ravens: Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
The Ravens lost a few key players on defense over the offseason and aren’t getting any younger. Mercilus is an active body who can line up at defensive end and play right away. In 2011, he had 14.5 sacks, including a dominant three-sack effort against Indiana. He’s a fearless pass rusher with big potential. Look for Ozzie Newsome to add him to an already loaded front seven. 30. San Francisco 49ers: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech
With Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Brandon Jacobs and Perrish Cox all inking deals in March, the 49ers were far more active in the free agency period this year than last. They bring back all 11 defensive starters. There’s a lot of reasons to like the 49ers in 2011. Adding a tall speedster like Hill to the mix would make for another. 31. New England Patriots: Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin
Though some scouts like his college teammate Peter Konz a bit more, I see Zeitler going in the first round to New England. A 6-4, 315-pound mauler, Zeitler could play either guard or center at the next level. Wisconsin averaged a silly 237 rushing yards per game in 2011; Zeitler was a major reason why. 32. New York Giants: Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama
The Giants won a Super Bowl with Chase Blackburn starting at middle linebacker last season. Blackburn played well and is a fine NFL player, but he’s not the long-term answer at MLB. Hightower’s stock is rising, with talk of him going as high as the top 15 this week. The Giants would gladly take him if he fell to 32.
33. St. Louis Rams: Devon Still, DT, Penn State 34. Indianapolis Colts: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama 35. Minnesota Vikings: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State 36. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers 37. Cleveland Browns: Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State 38. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska 39. St. Louis Rams: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State 40. Carolina Panthers: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU 41. Buffalo Bills: Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson 42. Miami Dolphins: Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina 43. Seattle Seahawks: Peter Konz, OG/C, Wisconsin 44. Kansas City Chiefs: Josh Robinson, CB, Central Florida 45. Dallas Cowboys: Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame 46. Philadelphia Eagles: Mitchell Schwartz, OT, California 47. New York Jets: Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut 48. New England (from Oakland): Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina 49. San Diego Chargers: Amini Silatolu, OG, Midwestern State 50. Chicago Bears: Kelechi Osemele, OT/OG, Iowa State 51. Philadelphia (from Arizona): Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State 52. Tennessee Titans: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan 53. Cincinnati Bengals: Bobby Massie, OT, Ole Miss 54. Detroit Lions: Matt McCants, OT, UAB 55. Atlanta Falcons: Cam Johnson, DE, Virginia 56. Pittsburgh Steelers: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson 57. Denver Broncos: Chris Polk, RB, Washington 58. Houston Texans: Andre Branch, DE, Clemson 59. Green Bay Packers: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State 60. Baltimore Ravens: Alameda Ta’amu, DT, Washington 61. San Francisco 49ers: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska 62. New England Patriots: Bruce Irvin, LB, West Virginia 63. New York Giants: Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia THIRD ROUND
64. Indianapolis Colts: David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech 65. St. Louis Rams: Brandon Brooks, OG, Miami (Ohio) 66. Minnesota Vikings: Trumaine Johnson, CB, Montana 67. Cleveland Browns: Mychal Kendricks, LB, California 68. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami 69. Washington Redskins: Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech 70. Jacksonville Jaguars: Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt 71. Buffalo Bills: Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma 72. Miami Dolphins: Nate Potter, OT, Boise State 73. Miami Dolphins (via Carolina via Chicago): Ronnell Lewis, LB, Oklahoma 74. Kansas City Chiefs: Brandon Washington, OG, Miami 75. Seattle Seahawks: James Michael-Johnson, LB, Nevada 76. Houston Texans: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall 77. New York Jets: Marvin Jones, WR, California 78. San Diego Chargers: George Iloka, S, Boise State 79. Chicago Bears: Kyle Wilber, LB, Wake Forest 80. Arizona Cardinals: Josh Chapman, DT, Alabama 81. Dallas Cowboys: Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State 82. Tennessee Titans: Ben Jones, C, Georgia 83. Cincinnati Bengals: Markelle Martin, S, Oklahoma State 84. Atlanta Falcons: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia 85. Detroit Lions: Josh Norman, CB, Coastal Carolina 86. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette 87. Denver Broncos: Dwight “Bill” Bentley, CB, Louisiana-Lafayette 88. Philadelphia Eagles (via Houston): Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas 89. New Orleans Saints: Tony Bergstrom, OG, Utah 90. Green Bay Packers: Omar Bolden, CB, Arizona State 91. Baltimore Ravens: Sean Spence, LB, Miami 92. San Francisco 49ers: David Molk, C/G, Michigan 93. New England Patriots: Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin 94. New York Giants: Zebrie Sanders, OT, Florida State 95. Oakland Raiders (compensatory): Travis Lewis, OLB, Oklahoma