With less than four weeks left to the first round of the NFL draft, people are starting to establish definitive statements when it comes to prospects — whether they have validity or not. Cam Newton either is or isn't an enormous character risk. Ryan Mallett either is or isn't worth a first-round pick, based on his tape and character issues. Da'Quan Bowers either is or isn't a mess with horrible, terrible knee concerns, and Jake Locker either is or isn't so inaccurate, that a bright NFL future is or isn't impossible. In truth, of course, we don't know where any of these guys will go and what they will do. So, to avoid definitive statements we can't possibly verify, let's stick with the tape, and specific team needs, and see how the top half of the first round might shake out. Picks 1-16 can be found below, you can read about the back half of the first round here.
1. Carolina Panthers — Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
The recent hullabaloo about Newton's supposed character flaws apparently went quite a distance up the nose of Panthers GM Marty Hurney. Hurney drafted Jimmy Clausen in the second round last year, but it wouldn't be the first time a team admitted a quick mistake on a quarterback, and Carolina's defense is good enough to put the onus on Hurney to get a horrible passing offense going sooner than later. The Panthers traditionally like to run a smashmouth, run-first offense, which actually plays into Newton's strengths, as he was often used as another running option at Auburn.
2. Denver Broncos — Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Likewise, John Elway's recent comments about Denver's lack of a true franchise quarterback certainly perked up some ears. Assuming that it's not a smokescreen (the Broncos are currently chatting up Da'Quan Bowers, who would go a long way to solving their atrocious front seven), you have to ask yourself … what king of quarterback would John Elway like? Probably one a bit like the one he saw in the mirror for 16 seasons in the NFL. A guy with functional mobility, the kind of accurate arm to make stick throws downfield, and football intelligence that will allow him over time to take an offense by the scruff of the neck and lead the Broncos back to competitive relevance. Of the current quarterback crop, Gabbert may be more that player than anyone else, and if Elway's telling the truth about the quarterback lack, you'd think that Gabbert would be a serious person of interest.
3. Buffalo Bills —Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
If the Bills are taken out of the quarterback derby by the Panthers and Broncos, their next priority would most likely be to shore up their own atrocious front seven. Few (if any) players in this draft class could provide more value to a desperate defense than Dareus, who had the ability to play very well just about anywhere on the line.
4. Cincinnati Bengals — A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
With the top two quarterbacks out of the picture, and Carson Palmer swearing that he'll never don the Bengals uni for another down, the Bengals have two choices — either trade for Kevin Kolb (which, in recent days, the team has apparently discussed internally, according to several sources), or try and manufacture a passing offense with the best receivers possible. That's going to be tough with the futures of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco in doubt, but Green could fill a lot of those holes with his impressive speed and freakish hops.
5. Arizona Cardinals — Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
Ken Whisenhunt brought Clark Haggans and Joey Porter from his old stomping grounds in Pittsburgh, but both players are on the wrong end of the age curve, and Miller has the edge speed to make a real difference in Arizona's defense. Having opposing offensive lines focusing on Miller's rush speed could also facilitate a return to form for tackle Darnell Dockett.
6. Cleveland Browns — Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
Their switch to a 4-3 defense means that the Browns need one thing they currently do not have — a pure edge-rushing end as opposed to an "endbacker" hybrid. Quinn would be a perfect fit because of his combined ability to get after the passer, and then peel off to stop the run. Despite the fact that he missed the entire 2010 season as part of UNC's agent scandal, he came back and tore up the scouting combine and further impressed at his pro day. There's a bit of finishing work to be done, but Quinn projects as this draft's best overall edge defender.
7. San Francisco 49ers —Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
The 49ers could look very hard at a pass-rusher here; that becomes a focus when you haven't had a player go double-digits in sacks since 2002. But the real need is probably in the secondary, where San Francisco got gashed by the deep ball and allowed some huckleberries to look far too efficient under center. The Niners overpaid severely for Nate Clements a few years ago, and if Clements comes back, it will most likely be in a reduced role at a reduced salary. A leader of the cornerback team is needed, and Peterson has the coverage ability to become that kind of player. Various team needs may push him down the boards a bit, but Peterson is still most likely the best overall player in this draft class.
8. Tennessee Titans — Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
The Titans could look for help at the end position in Jerry Gray's new defense, but it's also true that the franchise has been looking for that elite tackle prospect ever since Albert Haynesworth waddled off to the nation's capital and decided to take a large amount of money to not play much football. Fairley has some issues that bear watching — he plays too upright at times, tends to get washed out late in games, and his predilection for personal fouls could make him a target of the NFL's disciplinary arm sooner than later — but in the right conditions, he also has the potential to disrupt at an elite level.
9. Dallas Cowboys — Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
Jerry Jones has plowed a huge amount of money into skill and flash positions in the last few years, only to finally realize that without the big behemoths to protect them, those stat-collectors don't look so good. Right tackle Marc Colombo has proven to be especially vulnerable to the efforts of enemy defenders, and Castonzo looks to be the toughest, most well-rounded, tackle in this class. Typical of BC offensive linemen, he comes to the NFL with a great sense of fundamentals, which is something that has been in short supply on Dallas' front five in recent seasons.
10. Washington Redskins — Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
There are needs just about everywhere on Washington's roster, and it's been a typical call to put Alabama receiver Julio Jones or a rush end on Washington's shopping list, and good look at the game tape — especially against better pressure teams — speaks to a severe need at the tackle position. Trent Williams showed a lot of potential in his rookie year, but right tackle Jamaal Brown struggled to overcome injuries, was beaten often by better speed rushers, and is a risk at age 30. Sherrod is a great fundamental left tackle, but the ease with which he kicked over to the right side during Senior Bowl week (and the nastiness he showed in the actual game) should have the 'Skins looking his way.
11. Houston Texans — Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri
Yes, the Texans desperately need secondary help, but job one for new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be to help Houston's beleaguered cornerbacks by getting them some pressure up front. Phillips will need the kind of edge rusher he had in San Diego with Shawne Merriman and in Dallas with DeMarcus Ware. Phillips' defense is often misclassified as a straight 3-4 when it's actually based on a lot of 4-front principles. As such, the Texans need the kind of rush ends who can go after quarterbacks and still hold the point in different gap situations. Smith has the ability to line up in three very valuable positions — the 5-2 endbacker, the 4-3 end, and the five-tech in either front.
12. Minnesota Vikings — Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
It's time to face facts — as much as the Vikings need a quarterback, their formerly dominant front four is leaking in a major way. Jared Allen is starting to show his age, the Williams Wall isn't what it used to be, and Ray Edwards will most likely be moving on as a free agent. That leaves the Vikings with few options, and some holes that Bowers can fill. Recently downgraded by analysts who failed to understand that 40 speed was never his game in the first place, Bowers can play 4-3 end and slip inside to tackle in a way that brings Justin Tuck to mind. If everything checks out medically with his torn meniscus, Bowers would be a steal here.
13. Detroit Lions — Prince Amukamara, DB, Nebraska
The Lions have been putting things back together after the Matt Millen disaster; they have the quarterback (if Matthew Stafford can stay healthy), and they most certainly have the front four, led by the utterly dominant Ndamukong Suh. Amukamara, Suh's old teammate at Nebraska, recently told me that he visited with the Lions, and that Suh's been talking him through the pre-draft experience. Detroit got a little bit of a boost in its secondary last year with Chris Houston, but Houston will be a free agent, and safety Louis Delmas is the only Lions defensive back opposing offenses really need to take seriously. Amukamara has tremendous athletic potential — as good as he was in college, the lockdown steps he took in college bring a very young Darrelle Revis to mind at times.
14. St. Louis Rams —Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
The Rams would likely be doing backflips if Jones were to fall to this pick, and every other defensive coordinator in the NFC West would be taking a good, stiff drink. Sam Bradford desperately needs a consistent downfield target, especially now that Pat Shurmur's ultra-conservative passing game plans have given way to the more multi-receiver schemes of Josh McDaniels. Jones doesn't have elite downfield speed per se, but there is no tougher receiver in this class — he played part of the 2010 season with a broken hand, and just blew it up at the combine with a broken foot. Jones' intense love for the game can only be a benefit to a Rams team that is starting to put it together for a possible long run of contention.
15. Miami Dolphins — Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
The Dolphins could always fall in love with a lower first-round quarterback prospect and trade down or out, but if they stay here, getting a real three-down back (a rare player in this era of running back tandems) would really help the 'Fins as they look to transition beyond Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Ingram has better burst than a lot of people think — his extra downfield gear is impressive — and his on-field intelligence would be a great fit in an offense that has been run-heavy by default for a long time.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars —Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
Yes, the Jags have spent a lot of draft and free agency coin on their defensive line over the last few seasons, but so far, the results have been mixed at best. Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves were complete washouts, Terrance Knighton was a very pleasant surprise, and Aaron Kampman was more a short-term Hail Mary than a real franchise-building move. At 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds, Clayborn is the kind of player who will fit a team that can't seem to settle down and pick a front scheme — he can stop the run in a five-tech role, and he can get off the snap and chase the quarterback on the edge.