It's less than a month away, and yet the NFL draft is looking like a jigsaw puzzle that's just been dumped into a wood-chipper.
And it's not just because of NFL executives' usual concealment tactics that would make a CIA agent blush. Spreading misinformation this year is wasted energy; the talent pool has done all the muddling itself. San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan says he's considering five players with the No. 1 pick. At this point, he could be considered truthful.
"There's been more energy put into [rankings] than any year I can remember," said an executive whose team owns a top-10 pick. "When all the scenarios are put out there, there might be 30 or 40 realistic [scenarios] for the top half of the first round. … It's more exhausting than usual."
One trade or surprise pick this year would alter multiple draft plans at once. For now, the key appears to be Michigan's Braylon Edwards.
While most believe Edwards is destined for the Bears at the fourth overall pick, he could easily be chosen by any of the teams holding the first three choices, or a trade could be engineered that would take him off the board before the Bears select.
Should that happen, it would likely bump up USC's Mike Williams, and drop one of the marquee quarterbacks. That ripple could change the course of the running backs, and push defensive players like Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson or Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle deeper into the first round.
With those variables in mind – and roster moves still to be made in the coming weeks – here is our preliminary outlook on the first round.
1. San Francisco 49ers – Aaron Rodgers, QB, California
The 49ers have needs all over the place, but if they keep this pick, the only choice that truly makes sense is the local boy Rodgers. Wide receivers don't touch the ball enough to be No. 1 picks, and running back isn't an overwhelming need. Rodgers has proven himself to be more polished at this stage than Utah's Alex Smith, and he can be the centerpiece new coach Mike Nolan builds around. Don't think twice about the rumors of San Diego shipping Philip Rivers to the 49ers for this pick. They're simply not true.
2. Miami Dolphins – Ronnie Brown, RB, Auburn
Coach Nick Saban would like to go after Auburn's Jason Campbell or Akron's Charlie Frye in the second round, and that's one of the reasons this spot is ripe for a trade. Moving down a few spots would still allow Saban to get his running back, and then have a chance at a quarterback in the second round. Then again, Saban won't have to move if he can get a second-round pick for cornerback Patrick Surtain. If the Dolphins stand pat, Brown is the likely choice. He's the most complete running back in the draft and can touch the football 25 times a game both running and catching. As for Ricky Williams influencing what Miami does with this pick, forget about it.
3. Cleveland Browns – Alex Smith, QB, Utah
This slot holds the key to the draft's top 10. If the Browns pull a surprise and take Michigan's Braylon Edwards (or trade the pick to a team that covets the Wolverines star) it will throw draft boards everywhere into chaos. If Cleveland remains here, it's incorrect to assume the Browns are eyeing Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson because of Romeo Crennel's defensive resume. This is far too high to select Johnson, and Crennel isn't running this draft – general manager Phil Savage is. If the Browns stay put, and we're betting they won't, Savage will go with a quarterback to groom under Trent Dilfer.
4. Chicago Bears – Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan
Even with the signing of Muhsin Muhammad, Edwards makes sense for three reasons. One, he's the most talented player in the draft. Two, his speed and size will add another component to help the maturation of quarterback Rex Grossman. Three, Edwards can be allowed to grow into his role, while Muhammad (who turns 32 this offseason) draws most of the attention in the secondary. Cedric Benson is a possibility, but Chicago isn't giving up on Thomas Jones just yet.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Carnell Williams, RB, Auburn
Tampa's love of USC receiver Mike Williams is legitimate, but with Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway already on the depth chart, running back is a more pressing need. Cedric Benson will be considered, but head coach Jon Gruden got a closer look at Carnell Williams when he coached him at the Senior Bowl. Now Williams has packed on an additional 10 pounds of muscle to make himself an every-down player, and still retained his full range of speed and athleticism. He's a better fit than Benson for Gruden's style of football, too.
6. Tennessee Titans – Adam Jones, CB, West Virginia
Part of this pick depends on what happens with free-agent cornerback Andre Dyson, who still may end up returning to the Titans. If Dyson stays in Tennessee, don't be surprised to see USC's Mike Williams reunited with former Trojan offensive coordinator Norm Chow in Nashville. But if Dyson signs elsewhere, the need at cornerback will simply be too great for the Titans to ignore. Tennessee will then take Jones, who is the best cover man available.
7. Minnesota Vikings – Mike Williams, WR, USC
This is the player Mike Tice and the Vikings have coveted all along, and he's a natural selection to help fill the void Randy Moss left behind. A few weeks ago, it looked like Williams had moved himself into the draft's top five picks, but his impressive workout was matched by Edwards and both of the draft's marquee quarterbacks. That reality, paired with the needs of other teams, will cause Williams to fall to the Vikings. Williams is big, athletic and fast enough. Playing in the Vikings' offense, he should have a good shot to be Offensive Rookie of the Year.
8. Arizona Cardinals – Cedric Benson, RB, Texas
The potential trade for Bills running back Travis Henry would change this pick into a cornerback like Miami's Antrel Rolle. But if that deal doesn't get done, the Cardinals might attempt to move up to grab one of the three running backs. If they stay put, Benson's lukewarm workout, combined with Jon Gruden's familiarity with Carnell Williams and other circumstances, will cause the Texas product to slip to the Cardinals. He's an every-down tank that coach Dennis Green is looking for, and he would make it difficult for teams that already have to worry about Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
9. Washington Redskins – Antrel Rolle, CB, Miami
Coach Joe Gibbs needs a starting cornerback after the departure of Fred Smoot, and Rolle appears to be a natural fit, having played alongside Redskins safety Sean Taylor in college. There were some questions about Rolle's speed, but he answered his critics with an impressive pro day. While he might not be the pure coverage man that Adam Jones is, coaches think Rolle can make up the difference with physical play in the first five yards of a receiver's route.
10. Detroit Lions – Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas
Florida State offensive tackle Alex Barron and Oklahoma defensive end Dan Cody make more sense, considering the Lions have needs at those spots. But with Boss Bailey's health concerns, Johnson is too good to pass up this far down in the draft. If the Lions can move one of them into the middle, the trio of Teddy Lehman, Boss Bailey and Johnson (not to mention James Davis in reserve) would make for the fastest linebacker corps in the NFL. There are a lot of whispers about Johnson's ability to take on blockers, but that might be some sand-bagging. He played at an elite level for four years at a major program.
11. Dallas Cowboys – Shawne Merriman, DE/LB, Maryland
Merriman only really had one breakout season in college, and he still has to learn how to play in coverage as a linebacker. But he fits exactly what the Cowboys are looking for in an athletic flex defensive end/linebacker to fit a 3-4 defense. He's got plenty of size and speed, and he impressed scouts in his positional drills leading to the draft. He could be a major hit, but his lack of long-term success makes him a risk for the "bust" category.
12. San Diego Chargers – Dan Cody, DE, Oklahoma
The Chargers need to get a better pass rush from their defensive line after ranking near the bottom of the NFL in sacks last season. Cody is the type of high-energy player Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves. His lack of bulk is a red flag – and he took a year away in college to be treated for depression – but he has played the last two years without any issues. San Diego could also fill its wide receiver need here and wait to grab a defensive end until later, but most of the top prospects at that position will be gone by their 28th pick, so they'll fill that need with Cody first.
13. Houston Texans – Alex Barron, OT, Florida State
The Texans clearly want to upgrade their talent at offensive tackle, and Barron is the best one available. Though there have been questions about his passion, he's got all the physical tools needed at the position, and he's gotten exponentially better every year in college. Some grumbled about his difficulties in the bench press, but Barron has the longest arms of anyone in the draft and good lower body strength. He's more likely to be a very good player (perhaps even Pro Bowl caliber) than to be a bust.
14. Carolina Panthers – Troy Williamson, WR, South Carolina
The Panthers need a talented receiver to fill the gap left behind by Muhsin Muhammad, and the underrated Williamson fits the bill. Though Williamson had only one breakout season, he's got an abundance of speed (showcased by running sub-4.4 seconds in the 40) and plenty of size and athleticism. Carolina is a good fit for him, because he can mature while Steve Smith and Keary Colbert handle the bulk of the load early on. If he had played in an offense with better quarterbacks, he might be mentioned in the same breath as Braylon Edwards and Mike Williams.
15. Kansas City Chiefs – Carlos Rogers, CB, Auburn
This pick could change by draft day if Kansas City nabs Ty Law in free agency or Miami's Patrick Surtain in a trade. If the Chiefs were to acquire one of those players, they would likely look for a defensive end here. Barring one of those additions panning out, the Chiefs will go with Rogers, whose stock has risen since very impressive workouts leading up to the draft. Clearly the best defensive player for Auburn last season, some argue Rogers could be a more complete cornerback down the road than West Virginia's Adam Jones and Miami's Antrel Rolle.
16. New Orleans Saints – Travis Johnson, DT, Florida State
This is another pick that could change depending on what happens with the potential trade of defensive end Darren Howard. With no linebackers worthy of this pick, the Saints go to the next biggest need and get Johnson. He's another player who has really only had one "star" season, when he became a full time starter in 2004 for Florida State. That, along with some injury and off-the-field concerns, makes him a risky pick. But he has great quickness, and can be another quality cog in the Saints run defense.
17. Cincinnati Bengals – Erasmus James, DE, Wisconsin
His 40-yard dash times disappointed some people, who think he's going to have a harder time beating tackles in the NFL with a speed rush. He had some health issues in college. But James has good size and athleticism, and the Bengals need someone on the other side of Justin Smith. Still needing quality at defensive tackle, the Bengals will look at USC's Shaun Cody here too, but James will be too good to pass up.
18. Minnesota Vikings – Marcus Spears , DE/DT, LSU
Spears likely would go higher in the draft if an ACL injury hadn't hindered his workouts before the draft. He might work out on March 31, and that could change his status. For now, Spears' size (6-4, 307) gives him a lot of flexibility as an end or tackle, and would make a nice addition to the depth of the defense the Vikings are building. A former star basketball player in high school, Spears isn't super fast, but he is quick and athletic – both valued traits along the defensive line. He saw time at tight end and fullback as a freshman for LSU.
19. St. Louis Rams – Jammal Brown, OT, Oklahoma
After the nuclear meltdown with Kyle Turley, the Rams need to address their situation at tackle. Brown was a three-year starter for the Sooners, and made steady improvements along the way, especially physically. He has enough size to play in the NFL (6-6, 316), though he could easily add another 10-15 pounds in the NFL. Like Florida State's Alex Barron, some question his intensity. Overall, most think he can be a good tackle, but not develop into a Pro Bowl level talent.
20. Dallas Cowboys – Roddy White, WR, Alabama-Birmingham
He is a major vertical threat, with great speed and good playmaking skills down the field. White impressed a lot of people while showing off his skills at the combine and Senior Bowl. He hasn't played a ton of major competition, but that might not matter given his set of skills. The Cowboys could use a downfield threat, especially with Drew Bledsoe in the fold.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars – Fabian Washington, CB, Nebraska
It would be a total shock if Jacksonville didn't address its need for a cornerback with this pick, and Washington should be the best one available at this point. He's easily the fastest cornerback in the draft, running sub 4.3 second 40-yard dashes. But he's got some issues, especially his size (5-10, 188), which hurts against bigger receivers and in run support. Then again, the Jaguars don't need him to develop into a No. 1 cornerback. They need a solid No. 2, and Washington has the skills to accommodate that.
22. Baltimore Ravens – Mark Clayton, WR, Oklahoma
This pick could be influenced by what happens with free agent defensive end Marques Douglas, who could still return to the Ravens. If Douglas departs, Baltimore could go with USC's Shaun Cody, who could play defensive end or tackle. If Douglas returns, Baltimore has the flexibility to add to its depth at receiver with Oklahoma's Clayton. Interestingly, Clayton is not totally unlike free agent signee Derrick Mason. He doesn't have great size or burning speed, but has great hands, is very productive and runs good routes. He could be a nice third option behind Mason and tight end Todd Heap.
23. Seattle Seahawks – David Pollack, DE/OLB, Georgia
After losing Chike Okeafor, Seattle could use a defensive end who was one of the premiere pass rushers in the college game. His 40-yard dash times left something to be desired, and he lacks the size to be an overpowering end. Still, Pollack did nothing but make plays with Georgia. There are all kinds of opinions about the role he could fill in the NFL, whether it is as a traditional end in a 4-3 scheme, or an outside linebacker in a 3-4. After last season's spate of injuries, he would be a nice addition for the Seahawks, and a steal this low in the draft.
24. Green Bay Packers – Thomas Davis, S/OLB, Georgia
The Packers could use help at either safety or linebacker, and that makes Davis a perfect candidate. He divided his time up at Georgia as a starter at either safety or linebacker, and was a big-time playmaker at both positions. His 40-yard dash times left something to be desired, and most think Davis is best suited to be a linebacker in the NFL. He is a major league hitter who would compliment Packers linebacker Nick Barnett.
25. Denver Broncos – Demarcus Ware, DE/OLB, Troy
Ware is the next best flex linebacker/defensive end behind Maryland's Shawne Merriman, and should slide right into the outside linebacker spot as the Broncos make the transition to a 3-4 defense. He has some speed and is very athletic, but could struggle making the transition to being a full time linebacker, especially in coverage. His lack of experience against upper level competition is a concern, too.
26. New York Jets – Shaun Cody, DE/DT, USC
One of the most coveted high school players in the country, Cody was a four year starter for the Trojans. Though he doesn't have the speed to be a pure pass rushing defensive end, he's got skills to attack the quarterback from the interior line. Some teams think he could get bigger and play permanently on the inside in the NFL, while others think he's going to have to be rotated back and forth between defensive end and tackle. The Jets need someone to fill the gap left by departed defensive tackle Jason Ferguson.
27. Atlanta Falcons – Anttaj Hawthorne, DT, Wisconsin
The Falcons have a defense that is light on its feet and could use some young defensive line depth, and Hawthorne solves both of those problems. Though some might consider this a reach after Hawthorne's poor times in the 40-yard dash, he was a dominating interior lineman in college, jumping in as a freshman and stringing together 41 straight starts for the Badgers. He drew consistent double teams in college.
28. San Diego Chargers – Jerome Mathis, WR, Hampton
With all of the other quality receivers off the board, the Chargers would have to take a little risk on Mathis to round out their depth at receiver. But considering his speed (sub 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and the ability he showed against players at the Gridiron Classic, he might be worth the gamble. He also impressed at the combine. He's had some off the field issues and there is a concern about his competition level.
29. Indianapolis Colts – Channing Crowder, ILB, Florida
An instant starter as a true freshman for the Gators, Crowder is the cream of a weak crop of inside linebackers. He oozes athleticism, but scouts complain that he loses focus at times. He's had some issues off the field and wasn't the most disciplined player under former Florida coach Ron Zook. He can cover a lot of area and plays faster than his 40 times, and seems a good fit for the Indianapolis defense.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers – Heath Miller, TE, Virginia
Once thought to be a top 15 pick, Miller lost a lot of ground because of multiple concerns. Critics complain that he has poor blocking skills and lacks speed. Some believe he'll never be able to block well enough to make him an every-down tight end. There are also some worries about his health after a sports hernia kept him out of the combine. All of those things aside, Miller has fantastic hands and would give Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger a huge target in the passing game.
31. Philadelphia Eagles – Khalif Barnes, OT, Washington
A big offensive lineman that could replace Jermane Mayberry. Some think Barnes could bulk up to 320 pounds on his 6-6 frame. Physically, he's top notch. But the major concern is his commitment, and the belief that Barnes will need a taskmaster as a coach on the next level to keep him motivated. The Eagles have shown special interest in him, and he would clearly fit a need.
32. New England Patriots – Odell Thurman, ILB, Georgia
New England has showed a lot of interest in Thurman in workouts and the combine. The inside linebacker spot has become the top priority with the health issues of Tedy Bruschi and departure of Roman Phifer. Thurman's 40-yard dash times aren't great, but scouts say he attacks the line of scrimmage like a wrecking ball. Physically, he looks great, but he has a lot of refining to do. He's a top notch tackler and can shed blocks. He has had some off-the-field issues and was punished a handful of times while at Georgia for violating team and academic standards.