1. Panthers: Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn.
Newton presents a bust factor, but he’s the most dominant talent in the draft at the sport’s most important position. The Panthers are leaning toward a quarterback with the No. 1 overall selection, and Newton outplayed Blaine Gabbert by a massive margin at the college level.
2. Broncos: Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle, Alabama.
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock reported last week that “everybody in the league” believes it would be an “upset” if the Broncos didn’t use the No. 2 pick on Dareus. The best defensive tackle in the draft according to Mayock, Warren Sapp, and Rob Rang, Dareus is a no-brainer pick for Denver.
3. Bills: Von Miller, linebacker, Texas A&M.
Chan Gailey sent out indications at last week’s owners meetings that he’s head over heels for Newton and Blaine Gabbert. We’re not buying it from a coach who specializes in turning non-premium quarterbacks into productive passers. Miller is everything that Aaron Maybin isn’t.
4. Bengals: Blaine Gabbert, quarterback, Missouri.
If Carson Palmer skips the season (likely) and there’s no pre-draft free agency (also likely), who’s going to play quarterback in Cincinnati? Palmer is in physical decline anyhow, so even stubborn Bengals owner Mike Brown can’t afford to pass on perhaps the highest-rated passer in the draft.
5. Cardinals: Robert Quinn, linebacker, North Carolina.
Arizona has made its interest in Gabbert clear, but he’s not getting by the Bills and Bengals after the Panthers draft Newton first. The Cardinals’ pick then comes down to Patrick Peterson and Quinn, and the latter plays a more needy position while also offering a higher long-term upside.
6. Browns: A.J. Green, wide receiver, Georgia.
Green is a top-five player on film, and Colt McCoy’s potential to be a franchise quarterback will be significantly reduced if Cleveland rides the status quo at receiver. A game-breaking deep threat, Green is exactly the sort of “home-run hitter” that club president Mike Holmgren is pining for.
7. 49ers: Patrick Peterson, cornerback, LSU.
Peterson will receive consideration from teams drafting second through sixth, but cornerbacks have little history of going so high. He’s certainly worth the No. 7 selection for a 49ers team that ranked 24th against the pass last year and is likely to part with overpriced veteran Nate Clements.
8. Titans: Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, Auburn.
Concerns about Fairley’s “bust factor” are real, echoed last week by both Mike Mayock and Todd McShay. While defensive tackle is a position of relative strength in Nashville, the new coaching staff would struggle to justify passing on the best player available with its defense-first mindset.
9. Cowboys: Tyron Smith, offensive tackle, USC.
The Cowboys are known to have Peterson atop their draft board, and might trade up once they see him slip a few spots. If not, Jerry Jones should be happy to “settle” for one of the draft’s most athletic, longest offensive linemen. Smith would start in place of Marc Colombo at right tackle.
10. Redskins: Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington.
Rex Grossman is a free agent, and Donovan McNabb won’t see a dime of his $10 million roster bonus after flopping in his first year under Mike Shanahan. Shanahan’s system requires an athletic quarterback, and Locker is at his best throwing outside the pocket. He could “develop” for a year behind Grossman.
11. Texans: Ryan Kerrigan, linebacker, Purdue.
Kerrigan’s stock is rising to the point where he’s likely to go in the top 15. The Texans would prefer Miller or Quinn, but behind them Kerrigan is the safest pass rusher available. He’d team with Connor Barwin and Mario Williams to give Houston a real chance at 45 sacks.
12. Vikings: Da’Quan Bowers, defensive end, Clemson.
Bowers could push his stock back into the top ten with a big April 1 Pro Day, but for now he’s got too many medical red flags, on top of one-year wonder concerns, to be considered a lock to go that high. The Vikings are in danger of losing left end Ray Edwards to free agency.
13. Lions: Prince Amukamara, cornerback, Nebraska.
Offensive tackle tops the Lions’ list of needs with Gosder Cherilus coming off microfracture knee surgery, but G.M. Martin Mayhew can’t pass on an elite cornerback. Amukamara has experience as a press corner, making him a terrific fit in Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive defense.
14. Rams: Julio Jones, wide receiver, Alabama.
We know for sure Jones isn’t getting past the Rams; the question is whether he’ll make it to them. February foot surgery made it a bit more likely, and the chances will increase dramatically if the Redskins don’t draft Jones with the No. 10 overall pick.
15. Dolphins: Christian Ponder, quarterback, Florida State.
The Fins seem to swing and miss on second-round quarterbacks every offseason, so it’s time to get serious. Ponder would be an upgrade over Chad Henne in terms of accuracy, smarts, athleticism, consistency, and touch. He’d take over as the starter at some point in year one.
16. Jaguars: Aldon Smith, defensive end, Missouri.
The Jags are known to be high on Ponder, but he may be out of G.M. Gene Smith’s reach after putting together the best spring by a draft-eligible quarterback. With freakish length and pluses for character and production, Smith is right down Smith’s alley at a trouble spot on defense.
17. Patriots: Brooks Reed, linebacker, Arizona.
The Pats have been searching for a difference-making outside linebacker since Willie McGinest ran out of steam. Reed, whose stock soared with the top ten-yard split by a pass rusher at the Combine, could immediately help as a bookend for 2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham.
18. Chargers: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Wisconsin.
The Chargers are also in the market for linebackers, but their biggest need area is five-technique defensive end. Watt is the best in this class. At 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, he’s a bigger, harder-to-move run plugger than Cameron Jordan and a superior rusher from both the inside and out.
19. Giants: Anthony Castonzo, offensive tackle, Boston College.
Castonzo needs to improve his strength, but he’s an NFL-ready pass protector after 54 starts in Boston College’s pro-style offense. Offensive line is a position that G.M. Jerry Reese would be smart to address with multiple high-round picks. The Giants are aging and injury-riddled up front.
20. Buccaneers: Cameron Jordan, defensive end, Cal.
The Bucs have glaring holes at both defensive end positions. G.M. Mark Dominik will likely target a more natural pass rusher entering the draft, but he can settle for a safe prospect in Jordan after Kerrigan, Bowers, and Aldon Smith go in the teens. Jordan would start at left end in Week 1.
21. Chiefs: Phil Taylor, nose tackle, Baylor.
Taylor doesn’t project as a pass rusher, but he’ll be coveted by 3-4 teams as an immovable “zero-technique” nose tackle at 337 pounds. The Chiefs need a youth injection inside, and may lose veteran starters Ron Edwards (315 pounds) and Shaun Smith (325 pounds) to free agency.
22. Colts: Derek Sherrod, offensive tackle, Mississippi State.
Left tackle Charlie Johnson isn’t signed for 2011, and aging right tackle Ryan Diem is due a hefty $5.4 million salary coming off a career-worst season. Indianapolis needs to get serious about protecting Peyton Manning or risk missing what’s left of the 35-year-old quarterback’s “window.”
23. Eagles: Jimmy Smith, cornerback, Colorado.
Some teams have removed Smith from their boards due to character concerns, but the Eagles can’t afford to overlook the draft’s third most talented cornerback. A true size corner at 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, Smith would solidify the longtime trouble spot opposite Asante Samuel.
24. Saints: Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive tackle, Temple.
Wilkerson is another red-hot pre-draft riser, even earning the tenth overall player spot on Mel Kiper’s Big Board. While we’re not quite buying what Kiper is selling, Wilkerson certainly is a first-round pick. He’d help form a dynamic duo adjacent Sedrick Ellis.
25. Seahawks: Mike Pouncey, guard/center, Florida.
Interior offensive linemen typically don’t go so high, but the success of brother Maurkice is going to help Mike immensely on draft weekend. Seahawks incumbent center Chris Spencer is a free agent, and right guard Stacy Andrews is a surefire salary casualty, due $5.25 million in base pay.
26. Ravens: Torrey Smith, wide receiver, Maryland.
NFL Network’s Mike Lombardi is on record as predicting Smith will be the third wideout drafted in April, and we agree. A true field stretcher with sub-4.4 speed, the former Maryland Terrapin would be a local favorite in Baltimore and help upgrade the league’s slowest receiver corps.
27. Falcons: Gabe Carimi, offensive tackle, Wisconsin.
The 2010 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, Carimi is NFL ready after starting all four years at Wisconsin as Joe Thomas’ successor. While A.J. Green rumors are swirling, the Falcons’ most pressing need is in the front five. Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo, and Justin Blalock are all unsigned.
28. Patriots: Nate Solder, offensive tackle, Colorado.
Free agent Matt Light is recovering from shoulder surgery, turns 33 in June, and may have torpedoed his value to the Pats by calling out Bob Kraft for sitting out the end of CBA talks. Solder would team with Sebastian Vollmer to give New England the NFL’s most athletic tackle duo.
29. Bears: Corey Liuget, defensive tackle, Illinois.
The Bears haven’t drafted an Illinois alum in 25 years, a trend that probably needs to halt out of respect for club history (Red Grange, George Halas, Dick Butkus). Regardless, the quick-footed Liuget offers good value for a team searching for its new Tommie Harris at three-technique tackle.
30. Jets: Jabaal Sheard, linebacker, Pittsburgh.
Sheard has been written off as a first-round possibility by many draftniks due to off-field concerns that were ultimately overblown. Last season’s Big East Defensive Player of the Year is highly disruptive, and the Jets are desperate for improved speed across from Calvin Pace on the edge.
31. Steelers: Aaron Williams, cornerback, Texas.
Coach Mike Tomlin has a history of success with big corners, and Williams fits the mold at 6-foot and 204 pounds. Pittsburgh is in danger of losing two of its top three cornerbacks to free agency, including top cover man Ike Taylor. Williams could push Bryant McFadden into a nickel role.
32. Packers: Justin Houston, linebacker, Georgia.
Houston is considered raw from a technique perspective, but he’s arguably the most explosive pure pass rusher in the draft. It’s scary to think how dangerous Green Bay’s defense could be with a talented bookend for Clay Matthews. Frank Zombo and Erik Walden are “just guys.”
Missed first-round cut: Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Alabama running back Mark Ingram, Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers, Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure, Miami cornerback Brandon Harris, Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph.