1. Panthers: Da’Quan Bowers, defensive end, Clemson.
Bowers led the NCAA in sacks and tackles for loss in 2010, earning the Nagurski Trophy as college football’s top defender. Panthers sack leader Charles Johnson is a free agent, and new coach Ron Rivera requires a pass-rushing cornerstone at the most critical position in his Tampa-2 defense.
2. Broncos: Patrick Peterson, cornerback, LSU.
The Broncos won’t re-sign free agent Champ Bailey, and ranked 25th against the pass even before losing their All-Pro cornerback. The draft’s consensus top corner, Peterson flashed shutdown ability in the SEC and boasts off-the-charts athleticism.
3. Bills: Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn.
Newton quarterbacked back-to-back national champions at the JUCO and FBS levels, and his teams went 30-1 whenever he appeared in a game. Bills G.M. Buddy Nix reportedly likes Newton “a great deal.” Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t anyone’s idea of a long-term solution.
4. Bengals: Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, Auburn.
Fairley led the NCAA in tackles for loss among interior linemen by a wide margin, especially dominating in big games. Character concerns may bump him down a few notches, but Fairley remains a surefire top-five pick.
5. Cardinals: Von Miller, linebacker, Texas A&M.
Joey Porter may want to avoid the high-stakes craps tables, because he’s not going to be on an NFL roster much longer. A high character prospect and the draft’s top pure pass rusher, Miller would make Arizona’s annually underachieving defense better in a hurry.
6. Browns: A.J. Green, wide receiver, Georgia.
New Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur experienced calling plays without a dynamic receiver as Rams offensive coordinator last year, and it wasn’t pretty. A Randy Moss-type vertical threat, Green averaged 15.78 yards per catch with 23 touchdown receptions in 28 college starts.
7. 49ers: Robert Quinn, linebacker, North Carolina.
The NCAA stripped Quinn’s 2010 eligibility for accepting over $5,000 in agent gifts. Still a physical freak set to tear up the Combine, Quinn finished second to only Derrick Morgan in 2009 ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting with 19 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, and six fumbles forced. As a sophomore.
8. Titans: Blaine Gabbert, quarterback, Missouri.
Recent reports have Gabbert’s draft stock “slipping” as NFL teams do more film work on his less-than-dominant junior season. Gabbert can rebuild it at the Combine, where he’s likely to be the most polished passer with the best deep arm. The Titans are desperate to forget the Vince Young era.
9. Cowboys: Marcell Dareus, defensive end, Alabama.
Marcus Spears, Stephen Bowen, and Jason Hatcher’s contracts are all up, meaning Dallas could lose three of its top four defensive ends. A 6-foot-3, 306-pound bowling ball with rare quickness for a behemoth, Dareus would immediately move into the starting lineup opposite Igor Olshansky.
10. Redskins: Julio Jones, wide receiver, Alabama.
If not at San Francisco’s pick, this is where Kevin Kolb trade talks will begin in earnest. (The Eagles’ history of swindling the Redskins is something to keep in mind.) Should no deal be struck, Jones fills a gaping void as Mike Shanahan’s No. 1 receiver. Santana Moss‘ contract expired Friday.
11. Texans: Prince Amukamara, cornerback, Nebraska.
The Texans have many needs as they switch from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense. Ultimately, they’re expected to focus on cornerbacks and outside linebackers. Corner is the more obvious weakness after opposing receivers ran through Houston’s secondary uncovered all last year.
12. Vikings: Justin Houston, defensive end, Georgia.
G.M. Rick Spielman seemed to acknowledge Friday that he won’t find an elite signal caller in the No. 12 spot, instead praising the “very good senior quarterbacks that are going to go in the second and third round.” With Ray Edwards and Brian Robison free agents, and Everson Griffen having gone off the deep end, Spielman can fill a need with an incredibly explosive defensive end.
13. Lions: Nate Solder, offensive tackle, Colorado.
The Lions’ top offseason priority is to keep quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy. “It means everything,” coach Jim Schwartz said in his season-ending press conference. Solder allowed just five sacks in his college career, only one of them as a senior.
14. Rams: Akeem Ayers, linebacker, UCLA.
If Green and Jones are gone, St. Louis won’t find a wideout worthy of this pick that also meets G.M. Billy Devaney’s “four pillars” requirement. (Titus Young and Jonathan Baldwin both have off-field concerns.) Next up on the Rams’ list of needs is an outside linebacker with playmaking ability and cover skills.
15. Dolphins: Mark Ingram, running back, Alabama.
Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are both free agents, and Fins G.M. Jeff Ireland is intent on finding a running back “that’s productive, can pass protect, and creates yards on his own.” Ingram meets each criterion.
16. Jaguars: Jimmy Smith, cornerback, Colorado.
The Jags need help on both sides of the ball, but only the Texans had a worse secondary last season. Smith was the Big 12′s version of Nnamdi Asomugha.
17. Patriots: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Wisconsin.
Pats linemen Ty Warren, Mike Wright, Ron Brace, and Myron Pryor combined to miss 35 games last season, and Watt might already be the best of the bunch. According to NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, Watt is the best 3-4 end in the draft.
18. Chargers: Cameron Jordan, defensive end, California.
Jordan will probably never be a double-digit sack threat, but he’s a proven five-technique end coming out of Cal’s 3-4 defense. Jacques Cesaire and Travis Johnson are free agents, so Luis Castillo needs a new bookend.
19. Giants: Anthony Castonzo, offensive tackle, Boston College.
The Giants’ tackle situation is tenuous with Shawn Andrews due a $3.5 million roster bonus and David Diehl moving to guard after Rich Seubert’s major knee surgery. Giants assistant line coach Jack Bicknell oversaw B.C.’s front five when Castonzo became the first freshman starter on the Eagles’ offensive line in a decade.
20. Buccaneers: Ryan Kerrigan, defensive end, Purdue.
Kerrigan tied Da’Quan Bowers for the NCAA lead in 2010 tackles for loss (26) and totaled 32.5 sacks in his final three seasons as a Boilermaker. The Bucs finished last among NFC teams in sacks last season.
21. Chiefs: Aldon Smith, linebacker, Missouri.
Smith’s 2010 numbers were down after an in-season leg fracture, but he set Mizzou’s single-season sack record as a freshman. Now entering the draft as a third-year sophomore, the local favorite could replace free agent Mike Vrabel opposite Tamba Hali.
22. Colts: Tyron Smith, offensive tackle, USC.
The Colts reportedly “still regret passing” on Rodger Saffold in favor of Jerry Hughes last April, and they can rectify the problem with one of the most athletic linemen in the nation. Smith was awarded 2010 Morris Trophy honors as the Pac-10′s top offensive lineman.
23. Eagles: Aaron Williams, cornerback, Texas.
Right cornerback was a major problem area for the Eagles’ last season as the Dimitri Patterson and Ellis Hobbs experiments failed. Neither is signed for 2011. A size corner (6’1/195) with added special teams value, Williams blocked five punts at UT to rank second in school history.
24. Saints: Derek Sherrod, offensive tackle, Mississippi State.
Sherrod is a freakish specimen at 6-foot-6, 312 with 35 1/2-inch arms, 11-inch hands, and a mammoth 94-inch wingspan. Saints incumbent left tackle Jermon Bushrod has struggled as a pass blocker for two straight seasons.
25. Seahawks: Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, Nevada.
Matt Hasselbeck is a free agent, and Charlie Whitehurst looked nothing like a franchise quarterback in six 2010 spot appearances. After a sterling Senior Bowl, Kaepernick is gaining steam as a possible late first-round pick.
26. Ravens: Titus Young, wide receiver, Boise State.
The inability of Baltimore’s receivers to separate from defensive backs was their undoing in the playoffs. Separation skills are a strong suit for Young, who’s generated DeSean Jackson comparisons after averaging 17.11 yards per catch as a senior.
27. Falcons: Torrey Smith, wide receiver, Maryland.
G.M. Thomas Dimitroff is an admitted “needs drafter,” and Atlanta’s greatest weakness is in the receiver corps behind Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez is losing steps and Michael Jenkins can’t stop being Michael Jenkins. Smith, who declared for the draft on December 29, is one of Mike Mayock’s top-five receiver prospects.
28. Patriots: Jonathan Baldwin, wide receiver, Pittsburgh.
A deep threat receiver isn’t as big a need for New England as some have made it out to be, but Baldwin could add an entirely new element to Bill O’Brien’s offense. Mike Mayock has projected Baldwin to run a sub-4.4 at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, and the third-year junior averaged 18.26 yards per catch at Pitt.
29. Bears: Gabe Carimi, offensive tackle, Wisconsin.
Fielding arguably the NFL’s worst offensive line, the Bears surrendered a league-high 52 sacks and got their quarterback knocked out of two games, including the most important of the season. Carimi is ready to play in the NFL after 49 college starts and a Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year award.
30. Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive lineman, Temple.
We discussed Wilkerson’s emergence as a likely first-round pick on Friday, and the Jets showed last year that they’re not afraid of “small school” prospects by using their top two picks on Kyle Wilson (Boise State) and Vladimir Ducasse (UMass). They’re also in danger of losing free agent Shaun Ellis.
31. Steelers: Mike Pouncey, offensive guard, Florida.
Pittsburgh already hit once on a Pouncey twin, and the second is perhaps even more pro-ready after starting 46 games in college. Mike would start at right guard, where the Steelers have unsuccessfully rotated Ramon Foster, Trai Essex, and Doug Legursky.
32. Packers: Cameron Heyward, defensive end, Ohio State.
Returning 15 players (six opening-day starters) from injured reserve, the loaded Packers can use the 32nd overall pick on the best player available. Heyward is an ideal 3-4 end at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds with long arms and a powerful bull rush.