1. Panthers: Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn.
Carolina’s new coaching staff doesn’t seem to believe in 2010 second-rounder Jimmy Clausen, and the front office is “not sold” that any of this year’s defensive linemen are No. 1-pick worthy. Newton has franchise-saving talent at the most important position in pro sports.
2. Broncos: Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle, Alabama.
Dareus has passed Nick Fairley on most teams’ boards as the draft’s top defensive tackle, and a glance at Denver’s depth chart reveals the worst interior line in football. At 6-foot-4, 319 with incredible quickness and short-area explosion, Dareus is a no brainer at No. 2.
3. Bills: Da’Quan Bowers, defensive end, Clemson.
The Bills would prefer Cam Newton, but won’t have a chance at him barring a trade up. While Blaine Gabbert should also be considered, the NCAA’s sack and tackle-for-loss leader will be difficult to resist for a club that ranked 27th in sacks last year. Ala Darnell Dockett in Arizona, Bowers would play end in Buffalo’s 3-4 and focus on rushing the passer.
4. Bengals: Blaine Gabbert, quarterback, Missouri.
Carson Palmer is serious about never playing for the Bengals again, and backup Jordan Palmer wouldn’t make most NFL rosters as a third-stringer. Without free agency on the horizon, there’s no way the Bengals can afford to pass on an elite quarterback. Gabbert is this year’s top-rated passer in many eyes.
5. Cardinals: Von Miller, linebacker, Texas A&M.
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock uses two words to describe Miller. “Defies. Gravity. Bends parallel to the ground. This guy comes off the edge and it’s scary how quick he gets to the quarterback.” The Cards could use some of that with Joey Porter and Clark Haggans both 34 years old.
6. Browns: A.J. Green, wide receiver, Georgia.
While he didn’t generate quite the buzz fellow receiver Julio Jones did in Indianapolis, Green remains the clear-cut No. 1 wideout in this year’s class. The Browns are committed to Colt McCoy, but he’ll never realize his potential without an improved supporting cast.
7. 49ers: Patrick Peterson, cornerback, LSU.
Peterson deserves to go higher based on talent, but there hasn’t been a corner drafted in the top five in eight years. The 2010 Thorpe Award winner as college football’s top defensive back, Peterson’s addition would allow San Francisco to comfortably part with overpriced veteran Nate Clements.
8. Titans: Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, Auburn.
The Titans want a quarterback, but Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton won’t get out of the top five. Instead, they can end Fairley’s mini-free fall by reuniting him with college position coach Tracy Rocker. Fairley didn’t have a good Combine, and his measurables aren’t top-five caliber.
9. Cowboys: Prince Amukamara, cornerback, Nebraska.
Terence Newman is going on 33 and was abused in coverage last season, so it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys paying his $8 million non-guaranteed salary. The secondary is Dallas’ greatest weakness by a good margin, and Amukamara is by far the best defensive back available.
10. Redskins: Julio Jones, wide receiver, Alabama.
Owning no third- or fourth-round pick, the Redskins are prime candidates to trade out of the tenth spot with a team hungry for pass rushers. If coach Mike Shanahan stands pat, he must select an immediate starter at quarterback, wide receiver, or in the defensive front seven.
11. Texans: Robert Quinn, linebacker, North Carolina.
Quinn’s Combine performance has been described as “just average,” but he’s still a shoo-in for the top-12 selections. The Texans are currently relying on former backup defensive end Connor Barwin to be their lead pass-rushing outside linebacker. Barwin has 4 1/2 career sacks.
12. Vikings: Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington.
Clued-in Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Judd Zulgad’s “gut feeling” is that Locker is going to end up with the Vikings. Defensive line and safety are big needs for Minnesota, but when Joe Webb is atop your depth chart, quarterback trumps them all.
13. Lions: Tyron Smith, tackle, USC.
Our last mock had the Lions taking a tackle, and we don’t see that changing barring a draft-day slide from one of the top two cornerbacks. Boasting 36 3/8-inch arms and the most impressive feet of any offensive lineman available, Smith has overtaken Nate Solder and Anthony Castonzo.
14. Rams: Aldon Smith, defensive end, Missouri.
G.M. Billy Devaney will be disappointed when Julio Jones goes off the board in front of him, but quality fall-back options are plentiful. A local favorite, Smith showed at the Combine that his best position is defensive end in a 4-3, and current Chris Long bookend James Hall recently turned 34.
15. Dolphins: Mark Ingram, running back, Alabama.
Ingram’s stock wasn’t affected by his seemingly lackluster 4.62 forty at the Combine because NFL scouts already know he isn’t a burner. The fact that he beat out top running back sprinter Da’Rel Scott in the ten-yard split indicates that Ingram’s short-area burst is elite and worthy of a top-20 selection.
16. Jaguars: Christian Ponder, quarterback, Florida State.
Ponder is gaining steam for the first round after big Senior Bowl and Combine performances, and word out of Big Cat Country is that G.M. Gene Smith “likes him a lot.” David Garrard recently turned 33, is due $25.4 million over the next three seasons, and isn’t a true franchise quarterback.
17. Patriots: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Wisconsin.
Five-technique ends don’t go early in drafts unless it’s the Chiefs reeeaching for Tyson Jackson. But Watt projects as a borderline double-digit sack guy ala Justin Smith, with the ability to also be a high-impact run defender. At this point in the draft, Watt should be atop the Patriots’ board.
18. Chargers: Cameron Jordan, defensive end, Cal.
Like Watt, Jordan is unlikely to be drafted before the teens unless a 4-3 team deems him capable of playing strong-side end. Throw out Jackson, and in the last five years the highest a true “five technique” has been selected was No. 28 (Jared Odrick, Dolphins). San Diego is desperate for end help.
19. Giants: Anthony Castonzo, tackle, Boston College.
We mentioned in our first mock draft Castonzo’s connection to Giants assistant line coach Jack Bicknell, as well as New York’s aging, front five. Those concerns were not eased by G.M. Jerry Reese’s recent comments about Shawn Andrew’s chronic back problems, details of Rich Seubert’s major knee surgery, and Shaun O’Hara’s forthcoming Achilles’ procedure.
20. Buccaneers: Ryan Kerrigan, defensive end, Purdue.
After bringing up the NFC rear in sacks, the Bucs are desperate for pass-rushing production. Kerrigan fits that role as well as anyone in the draft after generating 56 tackles for loss and 32.5 sacks in his final three college seasons while tying the NCAA record with 14 forced fumbles.
21. Chiefs: Derek Sherrod, tackle, Mississippi State.
Kansas City needs a better right tackle than Barry Richardson if they’re going to continue to lead the NFL in rushing. Sherrod comes from a college program that posted a 619:288 run-to-pass ratio last season, and is considered this year’s most consistent tackle prospect in some circles.
22. Colts: Nate Solder, tackle, Colorado.
While Solder lacks core strength to be an instant impact run blocker, that’s less concerning for a Colts team that ranks 30th, 31st, and 28th in rushing attempts over the past three years. Indy’s pass protection is among the NFL’s worst, and they need to replace both starting tackles.
23. Eagles: Jimmy Smith, cornerback, Colorado.
Smith is a top-15 talent with shutdown-caliber ability, but character concerns will prevent him from going that early. He’s still a first-round prospect, and cornerback is the Eagles’ most glaring need after Dimitri Patterson and Ellis Hobbs flopped opposite Asante Samuel last year.
24. Saints: Justin Houston, defensive end, Georgia.
Georgia’s leader in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (18.5) last season, Houston was a consensus All-SEC first-teamer and Nagurski Award finalist behind Da’Quan Bowers. The Saints are pursuing disruptive front-seven players after their big plays on defense evaporated in 2010.
25. Seahawks: Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, Nevada.
Kaepernick isn’t commonly considered a first-round prospect, but Tim Tebow, Josh Freeman, and even Joe Flacco were viewed similarly entering the past three drafts. All were selected in the top 32. The Seahawks could bring along Kaepernick slowly after they re-sign stopgap Matt Hasselbeck.
26. Ravens: Torrey Smith, wide receiver, Maryland.
Smith is known to be on G.M. Ozzie Newsome’s radar as the Ravens’ personnel maven works to upgrade the slowest wide receiver corps in football. At 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds with 4.43 speed, Smith is a true vertical threat and would be an instant fan favorite with local ties.
27. Falcons: Gabe Carimi, tackle, Wisconsin.
A big-play wideout like Titus Young should also receive consideration from Atlanta, but Carimi provides more value at No. 27. Three Falcons starting offensive linemen are free agents, including right tackle Tyson Clabo.
28. Patriots: Brooks Reed, linebacker, Arizona.
Drawing comparisons to Clay Matthews, Reed ripped up the Combine with the top ten-yard split time amongst pass rushers, even showing more initial burst than A.J. Green. Reed is what the doctor ordered for New England’s outside linebacker woes.
29. Bears: Mike Pouncey, guard/center, Florida.
The Bears believe 2010 seventh-round pick J’Marcus Webb can be a long-term fixture at tackle, but the interior remains a major problem area. After his team allowed the most sacks in the NFL last season, G.M. Jerry Angelo must prioritize the front five.
30. Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive end, Temple.
If the season began today, Marcus Dixon (three career appearances) and Mike DeVito (0.5 sacks) would be the Jets’ starting defensive ends. Wilkerson is built to play five technique with 35 1/4-inch arms at 6-foot-4, 315. He also led Temple in sacks, tackles for loss, and hurries last year.
31. Steelers: Aaron Williams, cornerback, Texas.
Williams’ best position may ultimately be safety, but he’s ticketed for cornerback initially after posting respectable forty times in Indianapolis. Two of the Steelers’ top three corners are free agents, and free safety Ryan Clark is entering his age-32 season.
32. Cameron Heyward, defensive end, Ohio State.
The talent-rich Packers will be able to draft the best player available on April 28. Heyward would be in the mid first-round conversation if not for offseason Tommy John surgery, and also plays a position at which Green Bay is losing a key cog in free agent defensive end Cullen Jenkins.
Missed first-round cut: UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin, Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor, Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph, UCLA safety Rahim Moore, Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure, and Miami cornerback Brandon Harris.