It seems like everywhere I go, people are predicting that the 49ers will go after a big-name wide receiver in free agency. If we learned anything last year, it should have been that Balke doesn't like to pay top dollar for free agents, preferring instead to resign his own players and build on his team's weaknesses through the draft. If the 49ers do pick up a veteran wide out, it won't be Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson or DeSean Jackson, and is more likely to be as part of a trade for former starting corner Shawntae Spencer than via free agent acquisition.
San Francisco has far too many free agents already on the roster who have more than earned new contracts to go splurging on high-priced free agent acquisitions who may or may not gel with Alex Smith and the current offensive lineup quickly enough to contribute significantly in 2012. Additionally, I predict Balke will let Ahmad Brooks, who only seems to perform when there's money on the line, walk in free agency. Which means the 49ers will have to look at pass rushers again in the early rounds of this year's draft. While I do believe Balke can pull a repeat and find an adequate replacement for Brooks via that route, he most likely will want to hedge his bets with a reasonably-priced free agent outside linebacker as well.
That said, and with the NFL Combine quickly approaching, it's time to go on record with version 1.0 of my draft predictions - bear in mind that these are very preliminary, and therefore I've taken some liberties with picks and, especially, with trades, which will not appear in the final, mid-April edition. What position do you think the 49ers are likely to target in the first round of April's draft? Vote now, and after the jump, you can find out why you're wrong.
1. Washington Redskins (from Indianapolis)
Needs: Quarterback; Cornerback; Wide Receiver; Inside Linebacker
Selection: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
The trade of the century (so far - it's still early) absolves Indianapolis of any uncertainty or culpability in the developing Manning-Luck drama, and it provides the Colts with several extra picks (and, possibly, players) to address their growing list of needs. It also provides Mike Shanahan with the quarterback many have for some time been comparing with a young John Elway - something Shanahan can't seem to do without. One thing is fairly certain - Shanahan will not trade up for Griffin; he tried the mobile, freelancing quarterback routine in Denver with Jake Plummer, and most of us remember how that story ended. Under this scenario, the Colts can simply re-sign Manning to a multiyear deal, rebuild around him, then draft a promising young quarterback in a year or two (or even later in this draft) to replace him.
The question is whether the Redskins want to give up what it will take to get the Colts to make this trade. I have a sneaking suspicion it won't take as much as some might think, for reasons outlined above. Bear in mind - six months ago, the Colts were expecting to sign Manning to a new contract and be drafting in the mid-to-late twenties in April. And until I see Manning's retirement press conference with my own eyes, I will continue to assume he plans to play for another three or four years.
For the purposes of this mock draft, I'm giving the Colts all of Washington's picks through the first three rounds, with the assumption that Indianapolis would also receive one or more picks in next year's draft, or the equivalent in veteran player(s). If that seems steep to you, here come two words: Franchise Quarterback.
Andrew Luck is - well, Andrew Luck. We've all been hearing the hype for two years now and - wait for it - it's all true. Luck is the most NFL-ready quarterback to enter the draft since Peyton Manning, and he can start for and elevate nearly any team from day one. Maybe the question should be - as it was with Elway in 1983 and with Eli Manning 21 years later - which team(s) won't Luck play for?
2. Cleveland Browns (from St. Louis)
Needs: Quarterback; Wide Receiver; Offensive Tackle; Running Back; Offensive Guard; Defensive End; Safety; Cornerback; Special Teams; Coaching Staff; Public Relations Secretary; Cheerleaders (no, really - have you seen the Browns' cheerleaders? Just chew your arm off now and get it over with); Equipment Manager; Gatorade Bucket; Adam Sandler; but I digress.
Selection: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
The Browns will feel they need to trade up to ensure they get their man. There are too many other teams willing to move up to snag Griffin, and St. Louis is all too willing to deal. I have the Browns surrendering a 1 and a 2 to move up two spots in this mock; I think they're willing to give up even more than that, because Holmgren has visions of sugar plums and Cam Newton dancing in his head. It's certainly not a bad deal for the Rams, who will be thrilled to get the extra pick, plus either Matt Kalil or Justin Blackmon - the two players they want most anyway - about 15 minutes later.
Griffin is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. So the comparisons to Vick and Newton are fairly consistent. Griffin is a smart, strong-armed, extremely mobile quarterback with uncanny accuracy and instincts. He also is an excellent decision-maker with underrated toughness. He isn't the biggest quarterback, but at 6'2", 220 pounds, he's big enough. Like Vick, however, Griffin has a fearless, running style that can put him at risk; he often takes some nasty hits while scrambling, and had to play through a concussion in 2011. Another concern at the pro level is how well and how quickly Griffin can adjust from the shotgun offense he ran college to the pro-style offense he'll need to learn in the NFL. But with the remarkable success enjoyed by Newton in 2011 and the surprising emergence of former spread quarterback Alex Smith, the Browns are more than willing to bet that Griffin can be successful under center.
Needs: Offensive Tackle, Offensive Guard; Wide Receiver; Safety; Cornerback; Defensive Tackle; Outside Linebacker
Selection: Matt Kalil, OT, Southern California
Christian Ponder - to my surprise - showed some flashes, and may actually develop into a decent NFL quarterback. But if the Vikings don't get him some protection, pretty soon the only one seeing flashes will be Christian Ponder. The Vikings would also like to add a receiver to replace the departed Sidney Rice, so Justin Blackmon is a possibility, but their biggest need by far is at tackle. They will not pass on Kalil here unless they see a near-superhuman performance from Blackmon at the combine, a-la Julio Jones in 2011.
Kalil is the premier pass-blocker in this year's draft, and if he goes to Minnesota, Ponder may yet live to see his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio improve. Kalil has the talent to dominate in all phases of the game, but must improve his run-blocking at the next level. Another year in college might have helped him polish his skill set, but since he's a consensus top-5 pick anyway, there really was no rationale for staying in school. He'll just have to learn on the fly.
4. St. Louis Rams (from Cleveland)
Needs: Offensive Tackle; Wide Receiver; Offensive Guard; Defensive Tackle; Outside Linebacker; Cornerback; Running Back
Selection: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
The Rams need lots of help, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. They would love to better protect Bradford with a quality offensive lineman or two, but with a need at the receiver position as well, and Kalil off the board, Blackmon fits the bill nicely.
It's hard to go too far wrong with Blackmon; his upside is phenomenal - in the Tory Holt range, and his downside is not too bad either - let's say, at worst, Dez Bryant. Blackmon has decent size, excellent speed and quickness, and reliable hands. He runs very polished routes, and takes a mature, workmanlike approach to the game - much like all-world Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The addition of a player of Blackmon's caliber should work wonders for Bradford and the much-maligned Rams passing attack.
Needs: Outside Linebacker; Cornerback; Running Back; Inside Linebacker; Offensive Tackle; Offensive Guard; Center
Selection: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
After the Bucs gave LaGarrette Blount a new lease on life in 2010, he rewarded himself with some pizzas, a couple (dozen) boxes of Krispy Kremes and a cancellation of his gym membership. Blount showed up to camp last spring out of shape and unfocused, and it probably cost the Bucs some games (and some coaches their jobs). It seems clear that Blount is too immature to be relied upon as a feature back, at least at present, and Bucs management historically has little patience for immature running backs (see, e.g., Erict Rhett, 1996).
Tampa Bay has other needs, but Richardson may be the best running back prospect to enter the draft since Adrian Peterson (well, Arian Foster, really, but who knew?), and he will contribute significantly right away and for years to come. The Bucs are unlikely to pass on him here, particularly with the benefit of the new rookie wage scale on their side.
6. Indianapolis Colts (from Washington)
Needs: Cornerback; Offensive Tackle; Safety; Offensive Guard; Defensive Tackle; Outside Linebacker; Running Back; Wide Receiver; Quarterback
Selection: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
With plenty of shiny new picks to confront their many glaring deficiencies, the Colts can now begin rebuilding with the luxury of being able to take the best player available in each of the next few rounds. Then they can start looking at whatever needs they still have not met and stock up at those positions in the later rounds. Here, they kill two birds with one stone, addressing one of their biggest needs with the best cornerback in this year's draft.
Statistically speaking, Claiborne was even more productive in his final year in college than his former teammate - and last year's best corner - Patrick Peterson. That may just mean teams were throwing at him more because they weren't as afraid of him as they were of Peterson. Big mistake; Claiborne finished the season with six passes broken up and 7 interceptions. In any case, Claiborne is a legitimate starting NFL corner, and may even be as good as Peterson, if coached properly. He's certainly a huge improvement over what the Colts have right now.
Needs: Quarterback (just kidding, Blaine - the jury's still out. But the deliberations have begun...); Defensive End; Wide Receiver; Cornerback; Offensive Tackle; Tight End
Selection: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
Jacksonville's defense must be best at harassing opposing quarterbacks before and after the game, because during regulation, that pass rush is about as effective as an economic bailout package (the silver lining: it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime). If the Jags don't find a way to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than they put on Gabbert last season, they'll be drafting in the top 10 again next April.
Coples is a prototypical 4-3 defensive end. He has ideal size, good speed, and is as adept at stopping the run as he is at getting after the quarterback. He was double-teamed on virtually every play in 2011, but still managed 51 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 13 tackles-for-loss, and three forced fumbles. He's been extremely productive in both his seasons as a full-time starter, and is now ready to make the jump to the NFL. His presence on the line should instantly improve Jacksonville's pathetic pass rush.
Needs: Quarterback; Offensive Tackle; Act of God; Defensive End; Tight End; Wide Receiver; Offensive Guard; Defensive Tackle
Selection: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
The Dolphins kept Sparano around for an extra year, apparently in the hope that he would be bad enough to win them the Suck for Luck sweepstakes. But Sparano sucks so bad, he couldn't even pull that off. My first impulse was to have the Dolphins signing Matt Flynn and trading down to get some more picks (actually, I was under the impression that Flynn was a restricted free agent and would entitle the Packers to compensation - but "9therevolution" was kind enough to disabuse me of that silly notion. So thanks, and the rest of you may feel free to peruse my ignorance in the "comments" section, below.) In any event, I'm not committed to the trade scenario yet, in spite of the Dolphins' laundry list of deficiencies. If they don't trade the pick - if, say, they do sign Flynn, or they're eyeing Brock Osweiler or some other quarterback in the later rounds, they'll probably want to get him some protection. The Miami offensive line is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, and getting a stalwart at left tackle should be the Dolphins' number one priority in this offseason.
Riley Reiff is the most consistent tackle in this draft - he's better in run blocking than Kalil, and better in pass protection than Martin. There are no glaring weaknesses in his game. But then again, both Martin and Kalil faced better competition in college, so it's tough to make a very accurate comparison. Regardless, Reiff is, justifiably, the second highest-rated tackle on most boards heading into the combine, and he can't help but be a vast improvement on the Dolphins' line.
Needs: Wide Receiver; Defensive End; Defensive Tackle; Offensive Guard; Cornerback; Inside Linebacker
Selection: Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
With Steve Smith pushing ninety, the Panthers would like to get their new superstar quarterback a younger gun for his arsenal. They showed last year that they're willing to take a chance on a high-upside player in the first round, so...
Jeffery has the size and skill set offensive coordinators drool over, but his college stats column is a little light. Not to worry, that's just because he played at South Carolina (what happened to that high-octane passing game Spurrier was famous for at Florida?) Jeffery is often criticized by pundits and scouts for not having enough speed to get separation on NFL corners, but I watched him torch Alfonzo Dennard - a future NFL corner with 4.4 speed - for 148 yards and a touchdown on 4 catches (in less than three quarters of play.) That's a 37 yard average for you stats freaks - enough to make even Mike Wallace jealous. So Jeffery's got a little speed. Plus, he's 6'4", 230 pounds, so if the whole receiver thing doesn't work out, the Panthers can always slap twelve or fifteen more pounds on him and use him as a pass rusher.
10. Buffalo Bills
Needs: Outside Linebacker; Offensive Tackle; Defensive End; Safety; Cornerback; Quarterback; Wide Receiver; Offensive Guard
Selection: Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama
The Bills have so many needs I'm surprised they weren't featured as a love interest in that last Sex and The City flick. They could just throw a dart at their big board and hit a player they can use. But they'll probably go with their highest rated prospect anyway, just in case. Upshaw is likely to be that player at this point, and Buffalo can certainly use some help with that anemic pass rush.
Upshaw has all the measurables - size, speed, power and tenacity, and he may be the best edge rusher in this draft. He was very productive against top-notch SEC competition in college, and was well coached in a pro-style defense at Alabama. Upshaw is coming off an MVP performance in the National Championship game against LSU, and that fact alone has him moving up more than a few draft boards. Though his stats are impressive, they don't tell the whole story - this kid is extremely bright and mature, which should make hum very coachable at the next level. Upshaw is a very pro-ready prospect, and should adapt very quickly to an NFL defense.
Needs: Offensive Tackle; Running Back; Defensive End; Inside Linebacker; Cornerback
Selection: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
The Chiefs would love to get a running back to complement Jamaal Charles, who is coming off an injury, and whom they do not believe is big enough to carry the load for a full season even when healthy. But with Trent Richardson off the board, they'll address one of their other needs here and try to get a quality back in the later rounds.
Martin is as bright, talented, and well-coached a tackle prospect as there is in this draft, and with proper handling, should protect Matt Cassel's blind side for many years. He's a more complete prospect right now than Kalil, but doesn't have as much upside, and has occasionally had issues with penalties and in pass protection. However, with a little work, he should be able to make the transition to the NFL fairly quickly.
12. Seattle Seahawks
Needs: Quarterback; Defensive End; Outside Linebacker; Running Back; Defensive Tackle
Selection: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
Can you say "Blaine Gabbert", boys and girls? Don't say it to Pete Carroll; he's thinking "Ben Rothlisberger". The Seahawks do need to get a young franchise quarterback, though Tannehill probably isn't the answer. No worries, Seahawks fans; Carroll will be gone in a year or two anyway, and this pick may even help get him out the door quicker.
Leaf, uh, I mean Tannehill, like Gabbert, has the size, mobility, and arm strength scouts are looking for these days. And unlike Gabbert, he put up huge stats in college; unfortunately, some of those stats were interceptions on stupid throws into double and triple coverage. Tannehill can make plays with his arm or his legs, but does he have it upstairs to be an elite NFL QB? I'm not convinced. But, just because it has to happen at least once in every draft, some team will fall in love with his numbers and pick him in the middle of the first round. I predict that team will be the Seahawks.
Needs: Offensive Tackle; Center; Defensive End; Offensive Guard; Wide Receiver
Selection: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
The Cardinals struck gold going defense last year with cornerback and return man-par-excellence Patrick Peterson. I'm betting they try to do the same for their porous offensive line this time around. Arizona is not yet ready to admit that Kevin Kolb was overrated (Kudos to used car salesman Andy Reid), and will try to get him some better protection in the hope it lowers his reading on the NFL QB suckometer.
Konz is the best center in this draft, by a significant margin. He is excellent in pass protection, and an even better run-blocker. He played well in 2011 against NFL-bound Jared Crick, and also had a very good game against fellow high-rounder Jerel Worthy. Like 2010 first-round center and Steelers standout Marquis Pouncy, Konz can start right away in the NFL, and should improve the Cardinals' interior line significantly in 2012.
14. Dallas Cowboys
Needs: Cornerback; Defensive End; Outside Linebacker; Offensive Tackle; Safety; Center
Selection: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Jerry Jones once said he's always regretted passing on Randy Moss in 1998 because of Moss' off-field issues (I doubt he's alone in that). This year however, he will have to pass on the next best thing (Michael Floyd) simply because the Cowboys don't need a receiver. The good news for Jones is that Dre Kirkpatrick was arrested for pot possession in January, so the Cowboys' owner can now live out his Randy Moss fantasy while acquiring a player that actually helps his football team. And, given Jones' prior experience with one of his players (Michael Irvin) garnering police attention for a cocaine incident which even involved hookers, it's unlikely he'll be fazed by a paltry marijuana charge.
Most scouts have Kirkpatrick ranked as the 2nd or 3rd best corner in this draft (depending, no doubt, upon how they feel about marijuana possession.) In any event, unlike Floyd, Kirkpatrick does not have a lengthy history of off-field issues, and unlike fellow secondary standout and former marijuana possessor Janoris Jenkins, he has ideal size (6-3, 190). He also has excellent speed, ball skills, and rare leaping ability that allows him to win jump balls with almost any receiver smaller than an NBA power forward. So Calvin Johnson and Plaxico Burress have nothing to worry about. Kirkpatrick is a violent hitter who will not shy away from contact. He has solid technique and better-than average instincts, and with a little experience and good coaching, should become a shutdown corner in the NFL. Kirkpatrick can start from day one on the Cowboys' tragic secondary and be an instant improvement.
Needs: Inside Linebacker; Safety; Wide Receiver; Offensive Guard; Outside Linebacker; Offensive Tackle
Selection: Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College
Last year, Andy Reid gambled that Casey Matthews and a couple of retreads could handle the load in the middle of that defense, and it nearly cost him his job. He won't pass on a quality middle linebacker this year. The Eagles may also need another wideout; DeSean Jackson forgot he was in the NFL and not the Arena League for much of the season and he may be let go as a result. But this draft is neck deep in quality wide receivers, and the Eagles, unlike the Raiders, didn't trade away all their picks last year.
Kuechly, despite some athletic limitations, is the best middle linebacker in this draft. He's got the motor, instincts, and intelligence to quarterback an NFL defense, especially one with veterans of the "dream team" caliber that Philly already has in place.
P.S. - The Eagles will win the NFC East this year. And this time, I mean it.
16. New York Jets
Needs: Outside Linebacker; Safety; Offensive Tackle; Wide Receiver; Running Back; Interior Offensive Line
Selection: Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois
1st down - blitz... 2nd down - blitz... 3rd down - blitz. That's what Rex Ryan's defensive playbook looks like - all 140 pages of it. Predictability is never a good strategy in the NFL, but until the Jets upgrade their pass rush, that's all they've got.
Mercilus was one of the most productive pass rushers in college football last season, and has all the tools to be enormously successful at the pro level as well. The only reason he's not rated higher on many scouts' boards than Upshaw is that, a redshirt junior, he simply does not have as extensive a body of work. An extremely fast and athletic prospect, Mercilus can just blow by offensive tackles on his way to the quarterback, but also has the power to go through them. He should provide a huge boost for the Jets' overly blitz-happy defense.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (From Oakland)
Needs: Cornerback; Defensive End; Offensive Guard; Running Back; Safety; Outside Linebacker
Selection: David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
The Bengals generally like to accumulate as many players with criminal records as possible, but with two picks in the first round (thanks to the criminal mismanagement of former Raiders' coach Hue Jackson) they can afford to indulge that tendency a little later. Cincinnati has to get some help at the guard position, and with the talented and deplorably upstanding DeCastro still on the board, they'll take a chance on a law-abiding citizen and hope he can learn to adjust.
DeCastro dominates the middle of the line at Stanford. He does everything well, and is by far the best pulling guard in this draft. He is extremely smart and well-coached, and will make an immediate impact in all phases of the Bengals' offensive game plan.
Needs: Defensive End; Inside Linebacker; Offensive Tackle; Wide Receiver; Tight End
Selection: Nick Perry, DE/OLB, USC
The Chargers' pass rush doesn't scare many offensive line coaches - even the ones at San Diego State and University of San Diego. Unfortunately for Chargers fans, they're keeping Norv Turner for at least another year, and if they don't address their front seven inadequacies early and often in this draft, the only decent thing to do is let Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, and Malcolm Floyd follow Vincent Jackson out the door. Because that may be the only way any of them ever sees the playoffs again.
Perry may be the fastest pass rush prospect in this draft. If he times as fast at the combine as he looks on film, he may not be available at this slot. He may want to add a little weight to play end in San Diego's 4-3, but at 6'3", he's got the frame to handle it, and even at 250 pounds, he should be a huge improvement over anyone the Chargers have now.
19. Chicago Bears
Needs: Wide Receiver; Offensive Tackle; Defensive End; Cornerback; Offensive Guard
Selection: Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
This is the year the Bears get serious about finding Cutler a decent receiving option. They finally must admit that a bunch of rejects from the car wash are not the answer. Even the 49ers wouldn't swap wideouts with the Bears, and that's the new Webster's definition of "tragic".
Sanu stayed healthy all season and had an excellent campaign. He has ideal size and speed, and he runs crisp routes - which goes a long way in the NFL. What separates Sanu from the rest of the pack is his uncanny concentration and soft hands - he routinely makes the difficult catch look easy, and occasionally pulls in the spectacular highlight reel grab. Sanu should make for an immediate improvement over Cutler's current alleged wide receiving corps.
20. Tennessee Titans
Needs - Defensive End; Interior Offensive Line; Safety; Wide Receiver; Inside Linebacker; Quarterback
Selection: Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina
The Titans don't have a ton of needs to address, but the needs they do have are serious. A lot of draftniks are predicting that they will first look to pick up an interior lineman to improve the blocking for superstar running back Chris Johnson. I think Johnson would be better served if the Titans got a reliable receiving threat to take opposing defenses' focus off of him - and so far, Kenny Britt has only accomplished that for about two to three games per year. However, the only wide receiver left with first round talent is Michael Floyd, and Tennessee already has a delinquent on the roster in Britt. The Titans will address their meager pass rush with this pick.
In spite of some injury problems later in the year, Ingram still finished with 44 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Although he's on the small side, he has excellent strength and power, and his size-speed ratio is outstanding. Ingram's skill set will translate well to the Titans' defense, and he'll provide some much-needed help rushing the passer.
21. Cincinnati Bengals
Needs: Cornerback; Defensive End; Running Back; Safety; Outside Linebacker
Selection: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
In 2012, Nate Clements showed that he is just as adept at sucking for the Bengals as he was for the 49ers. Big surprise. The Bengals need to find a corner who can cover receivers like Mike Wallace, Anquan Boldin, Antonio Brown and Torrey Smith if they're ever going to seriously compete for a division title in the tough AFC North. They would love to get a running back to replace the relentless but geriatric Cedric Benson as well, but the only safe bet at that position in this draft is Trent Richardson, and he's long gone at 21.
Morris Claiborne is the best corner in this draft - by about two inches and a couple bags of weed. Jenkins can shut down a 24-hour Kinko's one-on-one. He has the speed, the instincts, the loose hips, and the short memory that all successful NFL corners must have. The only reason Jenkins won't be a top-15 pick is because he was busted on two counts of cannabis at Florida and had to transfer to North Alabama to finish his collegiate career. Which is ironic, because in Gainesville, the cops have to drive past four meth labs and a pair of dead hookers just to get to the UF campus. The good news for Jenkins is that the Bengals have a short memory, too. They don't care about off-field issues or criminal records. And they know a bargain when they see one - just ask Hue Jackson.
22. Cleveland Browns
Needs: Wide Receiver; Offensive Tackle; Running Back; Offensive Guard; Defensive End; Safety; Cornerback
Selection: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
Now that they've got their presumptive franchise quarterback in Griffin, the Browns will probably want to get him someone to throw the ball to; Greg Little doesn't scare many defensive backs outside of the greater Cincinnati metropolitan area. And they saw, twice in 2011, what a great wideout can do for a young quarterback in the Bengals' Andy Dalton-A.J. Green connection. They would also like to get Griffin some help on the offensive line, but with the top five linemen already spoken for, they'll try to get some value there later in the draft.
From a talent standpoint, Floyd is as sure a bet to become an elite NFL receiver as anyone in this draft - he's got size, speed, excellent hands and body control, and his production in college was extraordinary. The only questions are off-field ones. Floyd has had several issues, including a DUI arrest, which will give a lot of NFL teams second thoughts. Other teams, however, will be thinking "Randy Moss" all the way, and the Browns will throw the dice and hope Little and Josh Cribbs can do for Floyd what Cris Carter did for Moss in 1998. And if he runs over a traffic cop, so what? She had it coming. I can see the stupid commercials now: "...Mmikey's rrrocket will be rrready to rrace!"
23. Detroit Lions
Needs: Cornerback; Offensive Guard; Safety; Defensive End; Running Back; Offensive Tackle
Selection: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
The Lions need help in their secondary if they ever want to seriously compete with the Packers. They might prefer not to field any smurfs back there; all of Green Bay's receivers are over 6'0". But Dennard played well against bigger receivers in college - with the notable exception of Alshon Jeffery - and his talent is undeniable.
Dennard's height (5'10") will likely give some teams pause - probably enough to let him slip into the second half of round one, to the Lions at 23. Alshon Jeffery helped out some, too, with that monster game (4-148-1) against Dennard last season.
Needs: Offensive Guard; Offensive Tackle; Nose Tackle; Inside Linebacker; Safety; Running Back; Cornerback
Selection: Dontari Poe, NT, Memphis
Pittsburgh typically drafts the best player available, rather than for need. This pick accomplishes both of those ends, and the Steelers really have a lot of ground to cover in this draft - they've looked old and soft at times in several areas that are usually strengths. It's possible they will try, uncharacteristically, to trade down into the early second round and hope to get Poe there with value added, but don't count on it. Pittsburgh has a formula, and two Super Bowl titles in four years plus a shot at a third in 2010/11 says it works pretty well.
Don't listen to the hype on Washington's Alameda Ta'amu; Poe is the best nose tackle in this draft. He eats up blocks at the line like Lays - he can't eat just one. He suffered from some pass rush inconsistency in 2011, but the Steelers won't ask him to do a lot of that anyway, and with solid coaching, he should quickly become one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL. He is an immovable object against the run, and will fit perfectly into Pittsburgh's well-oiled 3-4 machine. It should be noted, however, that Kentucky NT Mister Cobble (no, I'm not kidding) should be available in the fourth round. Anytime you can draft a player named Mister Cobble at any position in any draft, you almost have to at least consider pulling the trigger.
25. Denver Broncos
Needs: Defensive Tackle; Safety; Offensive Tackle; Running Back; Apostles; Cornerback; Wide Receiver; Inside Linebacker
Selection: Mark Barron, S, Alabama
A few of the pundits were surprised last year that Elway, an "offensive guy" himself, elected to go with a quality pass rusher in Von Miller instead of trading down and getting a quarterback and some extra picks. It didn't surprise me at all; I watched Super Bowl XXII, and I remember Elway trying to complete passes all day with Lawrence Taylor's foot wedged halfway up his ass. I'm pretty sure Elway remembers it too - he's probably still got a few cleat prints in his large intestine. This year I predict Elway will do it again, and add another playmaker to his talented young defense. Especially since his offense already has God as its copilot.
Barron is a smart, hard-hitting safety who always seems to be around the ball. Watching him play evokes memories of a young (and healthy) Bob Sanders. Barron was a three-year starter for a pro-style defense, played against the best competition in college football at Alabama, and has been consistently productive. He's as pro-ready as they come, and should have an immediate impact on Denver's already much-improved defense. A scary thought for the other teams in the sad-but-true AFC West.
26. Houston Texans
Needs: Offensive Tackle; Wide Receiver; Defensive Tackle; Tight End; Cornerback; Safety
Selection: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
The Texans would like to find a decent No. 2 wide receiver to complement their superstar, Andre Johnson - especially after Johnson was sidelined with an injury for a few games in 2011, and Houston struggled to hold onto the division lead. But, with other pressing needs, you don't burn a first round pick on a number two receiver unless that receiver's name is Julio Jones and you're slightly unhinged. Houston can also use help at the offensive tackle position, but, with the best offensive tackles already off the board, they will address their defensive line here.
Cox had a very good 2011 season at Mississippi State, and is now in the conversation as a late first rounder. He has excellent speed and a nonstop motor, and can be a force on the interior line, though at 295 pounds, he may want to add some weight at the next level - he struggles at times when he gets double teamed. Cox is a high character player, who approaches the game with a very professional attitude, which makes him very coachable. He may require a little development, but should work his way into Houston's starting lineup very quickly.
Needs: Defensive Back; Defensive End; Inside Linebacker; Defensive Tackle; Wide Receiver; Center; Offensive Guard
Selection: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina
Assuming they don't trade this pick, as they've been prone to doing in the past, the Patriots will probably look to address one of their needs on defense. They'd love to get some help at the safety position - Lawyer Milloy's absence has continued to hurt that secondary. But with lots of picks and Mark Barron already spoken for, they'll hope to find a safety later and move on here to the next order of business at inside linebacker.
Brown is the best pure 4-3 outside linebacker in this draft. He's a phenomenal athlete with blazing speed and adequate size, has a nose for the ball and can make big plays all over the field. He shows very good physicality for his size, and should quickly become a force outside for the Patriots' front seven.
Needs: Outside Linebacker; Safety; Defensive End; Cornerback; Center; Offensive Tackle
Selection: Andre Branch, DE, Clemson
With a fairly young team, and coming off a 15-1 season, it seems pretty clear that other than their quarterback's mouth, the Packers don't have a ton of weaknesses to address. Most of those weaknesses are on defense, so with this pick, Green Bay will likely look to improve its pass rush.
Branch is a very good athlete with prototypical size. He uses an excellent combination of speed and power to get after the quarterback, and is very adept against the run as well. He should create a good tandem with Clay Matthews much like Justin and Aldon Smith do for the 49ers.
29. Baltimore Ravens
Needs: Inside Linebacker; Outside Linebacker; Cornerback; Safety; Offensive Tackle, Interior Offensive Line
Selection: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama
While the Baltimore defense is still formidable, several of the players that make it great are getting up in years. The Ravens have got to start getting younger on the defensive side of the ball if they're going to continue to compete for a division title year after year in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately AFC North. Ray Lewis is a hall of famer, along with safety Ed Reed, and the two are the heart and soul of that defense. But Lewis is a hundred and ninety seven years old, and likely to retire after one or two more seasons. It's past time the Ravens found a suitable replacement.
Hightower is a physical presence inside. He's got ideal size, excellent speed, a non-stop motor, and his awareness is superb. He can use some work on his ability to go sideline-to-sideline, but he's very pro-ready right now and can play right away next to Lewis, and learn from one the best in the game.
Needs: Wide Receiver; Wide Receiver; Wide Receiver; Wide Receiver; Offensive Tackle; Outside Linebacker; Defensive End
Selection: Vinny Curry, DE/OLB, Marshall
It will be a crime against humanity if the 49ers don't lock free agent pro bowlers Carlos Rodgers and Dashon Goldson into long-term deals. Adam Snyder and Ahmad Brooks are both free agents as well this year, and locking up that secondary may mean one or both have to go - preferably Brooks, who only seems to perform to his ability when his contract is on the line. The 49ers' most pressing need is at wide receiver; if you had any doubt, that one-catch-for-three-yards performance in the NFC Championship game - by all their wideouts combined - should have made you a believer. But this draft is fairly deep at that position (as is this years' free agent class), so the Niners can get the seven or eight receivers they need in the ensuing rounds and/or via free agency. Aldon Smith did more than enough in 2011 to earn a free trip to Hawaii in January, but what he got instead was a DUI. Tough luck, kid. With this pick the 49ers will kill two birds with one stone - snagging an upgrade over Brooks and sending the promising young Smith a message not to become a repeat offender.
Curry is an explosive athlete who seems tailor-made to convert to outside linebacker in the 3-4. He's got the size-speed-wingspan combination that Balke seems to look for, and is coming off his second consecutive dominant season at Marshall. His non-stop motor makes watching him play a bit like watching... Aldon Smith. Curry will work well opposite 2011 rookie phenom Smith, and the two should combine with the no-longer-underrated Justin Smith to give opposing offensive linemen nightmares all season long.
31. New England Patriots
Needs: Defensive Back; Defensive End; Inside Linebacker; Defensive Tackle; Wide Receiver; Center; Offensive Guard
Selection: Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia
And the rich get richer... After going defense with their first pick in this round, it is now time to Appease The Brady. The Patriots can use some help on the interior of their offensive line, and there are a couple of appealing options waiting at pick 31. They would also like to continue to upgrade their defensive backfield, so don't put it past Belichick to trade down, get some value and pick up Chase Minnifield in the mid-second round. But if the Pats stand pat and pick at 31, they won't reach for Minnifield who, depending on his combine performance, may even be available late in round 2.
Glenn has two things going for him: he's versatile and he's productive. His best asset at present is his run-blocking, but with the Patriots' solid coaching, he can improve his pass protection fairly quickly. Since the Patriots don't need him to start right away, they'll be willing to take him in the first round and develop him in the hope that he'll be able to step in as a starter at some point this season.
32. New York Giants
Needs: Inside Linebacker; Offensive Tackle; Cornerback; Outside Linebacker; Running Back
Selection: Vontaze Burfict, ILB, Arizona State
Teams that pick this late in the first round rarely have many dire needs, and the Giants are no different. They would like to upgrade at right tackle and better protect their star quarterback, and they can also use a run-stuffer in the middle of their defense. Burfict's less-than-stellar 2011 season at Arizona State will drop him on many teams' draft boards, and the Giants won't hesitate to snag him at the end of the first round, where he is a terrific value.
Burfict did not have the dominant season in 2011 that many were expecting, but he was still extremely effective. He totaled 69 tackles, five sacks, seven tackles-for-loss, three passes broken up and two interceptions - not bad numbers for a down year. Burfict has all the tools to be a force in the middle for the Giants, but needs a no-nonsense coach like Coughlin to push him to regain the aggressiveness he showed earlier in his college career.
62. San Francisco 49ers
Needs: Wide Receiver; Offensive Tackle; Defensive End
Selection - Dwight Jones, WR, North Carolina
Michael Crabtree is a decent #2 wide receiver, and is entering a contract year. Josh Morgan is a better #2 wide receiver, and he's coming off a major ankle injury. Kyle Williams is an excellent slot receiver, and a shaky return man: the 49ers turned the ball over 10 times in their first 17 games; Williams turned it over twice in the NFC title game (unlike some of the team's so-called "fans", however, I do not recommend that Mr. Williams be murdered. Kudos to his teammates and coaches for having his back.) No, I didn't forget about Ted Ginn - did you see that play where a perfectly thrown ball by Alex Smith went through his hands, bounced off his facemask, went back through his hands, and resulted in an interception? I'll bet Harbaugh and Balke saw it. The 49ers have three major, immediate needs: wide receiver, wide receiver, and wide receiver. Don't be surprised if they address all three in this draft.
Jones has the size, speed and hands to make plays all over the field. He doesn't shy away from contact, and uses his big body well to get an edge on smaller cornerbacks. He was extremely - and consistently - productive in college, and is vastly underrated heading into the combine. The 49ers should just hope he doesn't time out too well in his drills and force them to trade up to get him.
94. San Francisco 49ers
Needs: Wide Receiver; Offensive Tackle; Defensive End
Round 3 - Pick 94 - Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
The 49ers are far from finished addressing their wide receiver problem; they're likely to hit that button at least once more after round three. After scrambling to find receivers for most of last year, don't be surprised if Harbaugh elects to go with six or more wideouts on his final roster this summer - like he did last season with safeties - after all, it worked out pretty well for the secondary, didn't it?
Trent Balke spent some quality time scouting in Iowa in late 2011, and I doubt he failed to notice that McNutt somehow managed 16.27 yards-per-catch, pulling in 78 catches for 1269 yards and 12 touchdowns, in a very conservative passing offense run by a quarterback nobody's ever heard of - even in Iowa City. McNutt is a big, sure-handed receiver with excellent body control and deceptive speed. He runs precise routes, routinely makes big plays downfield, and is not afraid to sacrifice his body to go over the middle and get his yardage the hard way. The only cornerback able to handle McNutt this year was Alfonzo Dennard, and Dennard is a first round prospect. On film, McNutt looks a bit like Terrell Owens, but without the "Look at me! Look at me!" billboard glued to his jersey.
127. San Francisco 49ers
Needs: Wide Receiver; Offensive Tackle; Defensive End
Round 4 - Pick 127 - Jordan White, WR, Western Michigan
Here, San Francisco is looking for an underrated, high-value prospect who could emerge as a starter, a-la Greg Jennings, Roddy White and Marques Colston. As we saw last year with Aldon Smith, Balke is not afraid to reach a little to grab a player he believes can deliver.
Jordan White was the most productive receiver in college football in 2011. Currently rated as a fifth or even sixth round prospect by many scouts, he is the most underrated receiver heading into the combine. But if he times anywhere near as fast in his drills as he looks on film, he could find his way into the mid- to late-third round. With halfway decent coaching, he should eventually become a star in the NFL. It's hard to compare prospects from different drafts and circumstances, but White conjures memories of Mike Wallace in 2009 - especially if he falls to the end of the fourth round, or further. Hopefully Balke had time to visit Western Michigan on his way back from Iowa, because the Steelers don't need any receivers this year.