After spending the better part of last week at Athletes Performance in L.A. with Travelle Gaines and the players he trains, I came away with some interesting insights as to the physical and mental states of certain draft prospects, as well as the specific interests of certain NFL teams. I found out that the hubbub about Da'Quan Bowers' knee seems rather overblown, and I saw running back Taiwan Jones set himself up to run perhaps the fastest 40-yard dash in the 2011 draft class. This version of the Shutdown Corner mock reflects the need-based mindset driven by the current lockout, and a few picks are dialed into team interests. Here's the first half of the first round; picks 17-32 can be found here.
1. Carolina Panthers — Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
While many assume that new defensive-minded head coach Ron Rivera will select someone for Carolina's front four in this amazing defensive line class, Rivera's a good enough football mind to watch the tape of his new defense and realize that it wasn't the reason his new team holds the first overall pick. That defense, led by a very solid secondary, linebacker Jon Beason, and the criminally underrated James Anderson, could be half of an 8-8 team if the offense could keep up. Key in having that happen in the long term is finding the franchise quarterback that Jimmy Clausen most likely isn't. Gabbert, on the other hand, has shown an impressive ability to make consistent stick throws on the run, and run a fairly complex (if spread-oriented) offense. The Panthers could wait another year, bank on Clausen, and go 4-12 with a great defense … or, they could get ahead of the curve with Gabbert.
2. Denver Broncos — Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
The Broncos have no such quarterback issues; there's Kyle Orton, who put up some major numbers in Josh McDaniels' system, and there's Tim Tebow, who has proven that he can make things happen on the run. But Denver's defense was just barely functional enough from a 3-4 perspective, and things could be even worse in the 4-3 John Fox wants to run. What the Broncos need is the kind of defensive lineman who can play all over the place, and Dareus absolutely fits the profile. He could be an especially effective run defender as a five-tech outside, could provide some serious pop as a three-tech, and could even fill in at nose.
3. Buffalo Bills — Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Newton's raw athleticism may be the most impressive of anyone ever to play the quarterback position — when you're dealing with a guy with Calvin Johnson's approximate measurables who can also throw the ball 50 yards on a rope, things could get pretty scary if Newton was in the right scheme. That right scheme has been run by Bills head coach Chan Gailey since Gailey was developing Kordell Stewart into the Pro Bowl quarterback he was for a small time. With his command of Pistol, Wildcat and read option offenses, Newton would be the perfect foil for the ideal Gailey offense, as opposed to the version that has fallen into conservatism and disrepair with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm.
4. Cincinnati Bengals — A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
And speaking of teams with quarterback issues … we present the Bengals, who Carson Palmer has sworn to never play for again. Problem is, nobody's going to want to take on Palmer's salary and give anything of value in a trade considering the way he played in 2010, and Bengals owner Mike Brown has been known to back the wrong horse in most situations. So, with it a given that Cincy won't take a quarterback with Brown's stubbornness and the top two already taken off the board anyway. Given that, and the team's receiver position atrophying in the short term, it actually does make sense to give whoever will play quarterback for the team the best possible weapon, and that's Green, who has the speed and hops to remind some of a young Randy Moss.
5. Arizona Cardinals — Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
There's no question that Ken Whisenhunt also needs a new franchise quarterback, but with Gabbert and Newton gone, he may have to shine it on until a later round and get his defense back up to code. Miller could be the kind of pure edge rusher the Cards have never had under Whisenhunt's watch, and the extent to which opposing offensive lines would have to adjust to deal with Miller's incredible speed could make Darnell Dockett even more dangerous … or vice versa. Either way, having Miller on board could have Arizona's hybrid defense looking like an entirely new monster.
6. Cleveland Browns — Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
Quinn was one of two defensive linemen to lose his 2010 season to the UNC agent scandal (the other being Marvin Austin), and he was the one who might be in the top three had he been able to develop the little things in that extra year. Either way, after that year off, he came to the combine and absolutely blew up the tests, running a 4.62 40-yard dash (the fastest among all defensive ends) at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. The Browns are another team switching to a 4-3 defense, and Quinn could be just the kind of edge defender perfect for that front — more than just a pass rusher, Quinn also peels off and plays the run very well.
7. San Francisco 49ers —Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Bowers' draft stock has allegedly fallen in the face of questions about his torn meniscus, but after spending time with him in L.A. this last week and watching him go through full workouts and pull off a 9-foot-6 broad jump, I'm thinking that people might want to update their updates. As a pure player, Bowers could be both the pass rusher and dominant outside run-stopper the 49ers have been trying to draft for years. Bowers flashes good rush speed inside or out, and he absolutely envelops the ballcarriers in his way. Put him around Aubrayo Franklin in San Francisco's multiple fronts, and Bowers has the potential to be an outstanding all-around defender.
8. Tennessee Titans — Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
The only reason I have Peterson falling to eighth in this mock draft is the possibility that teams were looking at him as much for his return ability — if that's the case, Peterson could be affected by the league's new kickoff rules affecting return possibilities. But as a pure cornerback, there's no question that Peterson is the best at his position, and quite possibly the best player in this draft class. The Titans are another team trying to redefine after losing a highly tenured coach, and having Peterson in the fold could give the Titans a leg up in what is becoming a more important position every year in this new passing league.
9. Dallas Cowboys — Prince Amukamara, DB, Nebraska
Rumors have Jerry Jones looking hard at offensive linemen to protect his expensive offensive pointmen, but the more glaring issue is in the secondary, where cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins spent 2010 on the wrong end of the success curve. There are those who believe Amukamara to be a better safety convert, but it's very difficult to watch his tape and not see him as a potential lockdown corner in the right system. He's like an embryonic Darrelle Revis in that he can trail speed receivers ridiculously well through the conclusion of any route, and as soon as the small finishing issues are addressed, he could be as good as there is in the game.
10. Washington Redskins —Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
The Redskins have a locker room full of players that are talented to varying degrees, and dysfunctional to overall to an alarming extent. Many of the problems in the team's 2010 season came from Mike Shanahan's personnel mismanagement, but one thing the Redskins seriously need is a pure dose of the kind of determination Jones brings to the field. Not only did he play part of the 2010 season with a broken hand, but he also put up the best overall performance of the 2011 scouting combine with a broken foot. Jones is a physical, maliciously determined receiver with an ache to play the game the right way that each of his new teammates should pay attention to. Especially if he lands in D.C.
11. Houston Texans — Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri
Wade Phillips's new 3-4 defense in Houston needs an edge rusher like Phillips had in San Diego with Shawne Merriman and in Dallas with DeMarcus Ware. And when Phillips sets his 5-2 defense to more of a four-man front, and everyone heeds to switch gaps, he also needs the kind of edge rusher who can slip inside and help stop the run. That's Smith to a "T" — not only can he disrupt blockers and split gaps with the best of them, but he can also use misdirection to blow through and tackle any type of ballcarrier in the backfield.
12. Minnesota Vikings — Cameron Jordan, DE, California
Obviously the Vikings need a quarterback — that's the obvious case. But the team's formerly dominant front four is also going to be under construction in the near future, whether the Vikings like it or not. The Williams Wall is growing old, and that Rhinestone Cowboys Jared Allen may not be what he used to be. What the Vikings need is a guy who can pull double duty inside and out, and Jordan can do both. A tremendous pass-rusher for his size (6-foot-4, 287 pounds), Jordan can blast through blockers with very strong hand moves, and will spin out of obstruction in a big hurry. Put him inside in a three-tech role, and just try to run on him — good luck with that. The undeniable star of the Senior Bowl, Jordan may be the most underrated defensive lineman in this class, but people are catching on.
13. Detroit Lions — Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
Speaking of versatility, the Lions need someone who can eventually replace Jeff Backus at left tackle, and can fill in on the right side in a pinch. Of all the tackles in this draft class, Sherrod has the best ability to split between right and left tackle, which he showed at the week of the Senior Bowl, when he moved to the right side without a hitch. In the Senior Bowl game, Sherrod showed a real nasty streak for the South team, especially when blocking alongside Florida State guard Rodney Hudson. For the Lions, Sherrod would be a great addition as Matthew Stafford tries to get back on his feet and transcend what has become an legit "injury-prone " label.
14. St. Louis Rams — Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Unless the Rams trade up for one of the two elite receivers in this class, there are other interesting options in the second round. What they also need is the kind of defensive tackle who can blow things up in the middle for a good line time. Fairley has maturity and work ethic concerns surrounding him, which is the only way a player with his talent would slide this far. If he can get past his proclivity for playing outside the rules on the field, he could turn into what Warren Sapp once was in his prime. If not, he could be an NFL target, but still a decent rotational option.
15. Miami Dolphins — J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Miami needs a star running back, but they can get that guy in the second round — maybe even later. What they also need is a quarterback, but reaching for one in the first round could put them in the same fix they got into by gambling on a series of second-round quarterbacks. Offensive line is also a possibility, but if defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has an increased voice in a now Parcells-free Dolphins front office, there's no question that he will lobby for the most athletic lineman on the board — that's what he always did in San Francisco as the 49ers' head coach, and Watt would fit the profile.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars —Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
The Jags have put as much or more draft currency on defensive linemen in the last few drafts as any NFL team, with limited success for the most part. They still need players who can fill key roles, and they seem to need players who can do it in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, because they can't seem to figure out which one they want. If Clayborn's on the board here, he'd be a great complement to Tyson Alualu, last year's draft success, and criminally underrated tackle Terrance Knighton. There are consistency questions, and some wonder if Clayborn can be an elite edge rusher, but the Jags seem to be creating a patchwork of multi-front players with a do-it-all-approach that Clayborn shares.