1. Panthers: Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn.
The Panthers have decided to take a quarterback as the only team in their division without one, and prefer Newton’s upside and dominance to Blaine Gabbert’s mediocrity. With 93 touchdowns in 31 college games, Newton defines “playmaker” at the most important position in the sport.
2. Broncos: Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle, Alabama.
Dareus’ impressive college production has been overlooked in Nick Fairley comparisons; he was really only a full-time player one year at Alabama, and still racked up 11 sacks with 20 tackles for loss. A stronger option than Fairley, Dareus boosts Denver’s woeful defensive tackle depth chart.
3. Bills: Von Miller, linebacker, Texas A&M.
33 sacks, 50.5 tackles for loss, and 10 forced fumbles. The 2010 Butkus Award. Miller’s body of work compares favorably to all of this year’s top-ten picks, and his ability to bend and explode by offensive tackles is unrivaled. Chan Gailey will wait for his franchise quarterback at the top of round two.
4. Bengals: Blaine Gabbert, quarterback, Missouri.
Gabbert is the highest rated pocket passer in the 2011 draft, even if he never fully put it together at Mizzou. Cincinnati has been linked to pass catchers, but Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley, and Andre Caldwell form a passable nucleus. Who’s going to throw to them?
5. Cardinals: Robert Quinn, linebacker, North Carolina.
LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson is another strong possibility, but need trumps value when the talent differential is so small. A freakish athlete with 4.57 wheels at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, Quinn would combine with O’Brien Schofield to give Arizona a formidable long-term outside pass rush.
6. Browns: A.J. Green, wide receiver, Georgia.
Brian Robiskie, Chansi Stuckey, and Mohamed Massaquoi won’t cut it if the Browns are going to give Colt McCoy a legitimate chance to establish himself. Green has some Randy Moss to his game, scoring 23 touchdowns across 27 college starts in Georgia’s aggressive, pro-style offense.
7. 49ers: Patrick Peterson, cornerback, LSU.
The 2010 Thorpe Award winner as college football’s top defensive back, Peterson projects as a press-man corner capable of bottling up vertical, split end-type receivers. Also a playmaker coming off a four-interception campaign, Peterson would allow the Niners to turn the page on Nate Clements.
8. Titans: Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, Auburn.
Lacking scheme versatility and a consistent motor, Fairley’s “boom or bust” factor and inability to appeal to all teams will push a top-five talent out of the top seven. The 2010 SEC Defensive Player of the Year won’t bypass the Titans as a near lock to be the best player left on their board.
9. Cowboys: Tyron Smith, tackle, USC.
Smith was a right tackle only at Southern Cal, but his impressive length and athleticism have generated comparisons to D’Brickashaw Ferguson. With Peterson certain to go in the top seven, Smith will be Dallas’ highest rated player at a position they must upgrade with Marc Colombo on the way out.
10. Redskins: Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington.
Statistically, Locker grades out as an undrafted free agent with a 53.9 career completion rate, 15-25 record, and 6.65 yards-per-attempt average. Athletically, Locker is a picturesque fit for the Shanahans’ scheme, which relies heavily on its quarterback making throws outside the pocket.
11. Texans: Aldon Smith, linebacker, Missouri.
Draftniks question Smith’s ability to drop into coverage, but the Texans won’t pick him to shut down tight ends. Drawing comparisons to DeMarcus Ware, Missouri’s single-season sack record holder can be new Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ next big-time pass rusher.
12. Vikings: Prince Amukamara, cornerback, Nebraska.
The Vikes are enamored with Locker, but he won’t get by Washington as Mike Shanahan’s coveted quarterback in this draft. A safe pick at a need position, Amukamara could allow Minnesota to consider sliding Cedric Griffin to safety and upgrade a porous secondary save Antoine Winfield.
13. Lions: Anthony Castonzo, tackle, Boston College.
Detroit must draft the best offensive lineman available to keep Matthew Stafford healthy. Castonzo draws comparisons to Jake Long as a rock-solid pass protector with ample run-blocking upside. He’d start at right tackle in year one, and eventually replace Jeff Backus on Stafford’s blind side.
14. Rams: Julio Jones, wide receiver, Alabama.
Jones could conceivably go earlier than 14, but the odds on that happening diminish greatly once Washington passes. And we’re convinced Shanahan is smitten with Locker. While St. Louis isn’t “one player away,” Jones instantly makes Josh McDaniels’ offense considerably more lethal.
15. Dolphins: Ryan Mallett, quarterback, Arkansas.
Miami’s front office has made its desire to implement a high-octane passing attack clear, and Chad Henne barely held off Tyler Thigpen and Chad Pennington last year. The Patriots’ scheduling of Tuesday’s pre-draft visit with Mallett indicates they’re doing intel on a player they anticipate landing with a division rival. Sorry mock drafters: The Fins aren’t taking Mark Ingram at 15.
16. Jaguars: Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, Nevada.
At the same time that local support is building for a first-round quarterback in Jacksonville, word recently leaked that numerous teams rate Kaepernick as the draft’s top signal caller. With a rare combination of arm strength and athleticism, Kaepernick is drawing Randall Cunningham comparisons.
17. Patriots: Ryan Kerrigan, linebacker, Purdue.
Kerrigan had more career sacks (33.5), tackles for loss (57), and forced fumbles (14) in college than Von Miller, and faced better offensive lines in the Big Ten. While he isn’t quite as explosive off the snap, Kerrigan fits the Patriots’ mold as a versatile, Mike Vrabel type who just makes plays.
18. Chargers: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Wisconsin.
Watt could go earlier if 4-3 teams believe he’s capable of affecting the quarterback as a left end, but he may lack the first-step burst that all four-man front clubs crave in linemen. San Diego’s biggest weakness is at “five technique” end, and Watt is the best one of them in this draft class.
19. Giants: Mike Pouncey, guard/center, Florida.
New York’s interior line is in shambles with center Shaun O’Hara and guard Rich Seubert both coming off serious lower-leg surgeries. Like his brother, Pouncey is ready to start on day one. The Giants’ front five would be Chris Snee, David Diehl, Kareem McKenzie, Pouncey, and probably William Beatty, with the rookie able to play either center or guard.
20. Bucs: Da’Quan Bowers, defensive end, Clemson.
Bowers’ camp has done its best to downplay the knee concerns, but last year’s NCAA sacks leader is dealing with degenerative arthritis in the joint. Teams will be extremely wary of a pass rusher who already wore a one-year wonder label, and is now nursing an explosion-sapping injury.
21. Chiefs: Gabe Carimi, tackle, Wisconsin.
We’ve admittedly had Carimi lasting too long in our first three mocks; this is a premier offensive lineman who would be picked in the teens if not for the abundance of difference-making, first-round pass rushers. In Kansas City, Carimi would bookend Branden Albert for the next ten years.
22. Colts: Derek Sherrod, tackle, Mississippi State.
Colts president Bill Polian has been publicly clobbering his offensive line for two years, so it’s probably time he does something about it. A 6-foot-6, 312-pounder with smarts (second-team Academic All American) and ideal length (84-inch wingspan), Sherrod is ready to start in the NFL.
23. Eagles: Jimmy Smith, cornerback, Colorado.
A legitimate top-15 talent with shutdown ability, Smith’s character concerns won’t cause him to slip past an Eagles defense that may be one right cornerback away from a Super Bowl appearance. Smith is a true man-to-man, “press” corner with enough physicality to also fill hard in run support.
24. Saints: Jabaal Sheard, defensive end, Pittsburgh.
Many draftniks wrote off Sheard after a relatively under-the-radar college career that included one off-the-field incident. The character concerns are overblown, however, and the 2010 Big East Defensive Player of the Year will be an impact rusher in Gregg Williams’ up-tempo defense.
25. Seahawks: Corey Liuget, defensive tackle, Illinois.
Seattle has shown minimal interest in retaining free agent Brandon Mebane, potentially leaving a gaping hole next to nose tackle Colin Cole. Often compared to Gerald McCoy and Tommie Harris in his prime, Liuget is an up-the-field pass rusher with a very high ceiling, having just turned 21.
26. Ravens: Brooks Reed, defensive end, Arizona.
Reed pushed himself into the first round with a Clay Matthews-like ten-yard split in Indianapolis, and the Ravens confirmed their interest during a March 28 private workout. Jarret Johnson is entering a contract year at age 30, so Reed could help on nickel downs before replacing Johnson in 2012.
27. Falcons: Danny Watkins, guard/tackle, Baylor.
Both Falcons starting guards are free agents, and so too is right tackle Tyson Clabo. Perhaps the nastiest offensive lineman in the draft, Watkins could start at any of the three positions in Atlanta. Though he’s only 6-foot-3, 312, Watkins has plenty of length (34-inch arms) to replace Clabo if needed.
28. Patriots: Cameron Jordan, defensive end, California.
The media overrated Jordan after a sensational Senior Bowl; he just isn’t a natural rushing the passer. Steve’s son still offers value as a late first-rounder for 3-4 teams. Jordan played in a three-man front at Cal, and he has long arms and massive hands to occupy blocks.
29. Bears: Marvin Austin, defensive tackle, North Carolina.
Austin’s college career left much to be desired (nine career sacks), but talent will keep him in round one. The nation’s former top defensive tackle recruit has rehabbed his stock with an exceptional offseason, dominating at the East-West Shrine and standing out at the Combine and Tar Heels’ Pro Day.
30. Jets: Akeem Ayers, linebacker, UCLA.
Coach Rex Ryan values linebackers that can both rush and drop, and Ayers was a playmaker in coverage with six interceptions at UCLA, two of which he ran back for touchdowns as a sophomore. The Jets have a great defense, but their outside ‘backers are mediocre getting to the quarterback.
31. Steelers: Phil Taylor, defensive tackle, Baylor.
Taylor’s foot problems have been overblown, and the 6-foot-4, 337-pounder could project as 34-year-old nose tackle Casey Hampton’s eventual successor in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would probably prefer an offensive lineman or cornerback, but may struggle to find one with enough value here.
32. Packers: Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive end, Temple.
SI.com’s Peter King reported Monday that Wilkerson’s stock is slipping late in the draft process, but there’s still a good chance he’d be atop G.M. Ted Thompson’s board at 32. An elite pass rusher in the MAC with incredible length and versatility, Wilkerson also plays a needy position in Green Bay.
Just missed: Maryland receiver Torrey Smith, Alabama running back Mark Ingram, Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, Texas safety Aaron Williams, Georgia defensive end Justin Houston, Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, Colorado tackle Nate Solder.