The first time I experienced a Ron Rivera Mini Miracle, I was an 18-year-old college freshman lying on my back in a musty dorm lounge, trying to contemplate the nonsensical cruelty of the universe.
For the better part of three hours, my excited friends and I had watched a bizarre football game on a small, decidedly low-def television set, complete with rabbit ears. It was the 1983 season opener, and our beloved Cal Bears – a team including three residents of our dorm floor – had jumped out to a 17-0 advantage on the road against Texas A&M, only to blow the entire lead in the third quarter. After being stuffed at the Aggie goal line in the fourth quarter, Cal drove down the field again and appeared to take a three-point lead on Randy Pratt's 21-yard field goal with 1:20 to go.
That's when things got weird. As the telecast returned from a timeout, the Bears' offense was back on the field, preparing to run a play from the A&M 2-yard line. The announcers incredulously explained that there had been a roughing-the-kicker penalty against the Aggies – and Cal coach Joe Kapp had elected to take points off the board and go for the touchdown.
We all sensed what would happen next. Quarterback Gale Gilbert fumbled the snap and the Aggies recovered. There were ties in college football back then – yeah, yeah, I'm old – and this one seemed destined to be a dastardly draw for the Blue & Gold.
That was when I put down my lukewarm Lowenbrau (oops, I mean lemonade) and lay down behind the TV to process the lameness of the team I loved. But this was Cal's first game since "The Play" and, channeling that spirit, the Bears' best player refused to give up. After the Aggies burned up most of the clock by running two handoffs into the line, they inexplicably called a pitchout. Rivera blasted through his gap and arrived just after the football, burying the ball carrier for a game-winning safety. As my friends formed a celebratory dog pile, I jumped up and watched the replay with an awestruck appreciation for the All-American linebacker.
All of this is a long way of introducing my seventh annual Ultimate Mock Draft, which begins with Rivera in need of another Mini Miracle (albeit a mythical one). As the newly hired coach of the woeful Panthers, Rivera will be part of the brain trust deciding which player to select first in both the real NFL draft a week from Thursday and in UMD VII. Let's just say that the prospects of landing a franchise quarterback are far more sunny in the latter scenario.
For those of you who weren't around when I created this imaginary reality in which any human on earth is theoretically there for the taking – or for UMDs II, III, IV, V and VI – the exercise is simple: Using this year's original draft order, and after soliciting the input of some of the NFL's most respected talent evaluators, I give you a realistic idea of what would happen if everyone in the world were available, as is.
This means that, while old guys might rule, their value is diminished in UMD-ville. It also means that pre-existing trades involving 2011 first-round picks – in this case, the Richard Seymour(notes) deal that sent Oakland's selection to the Patriots – aren't recognized in this alternate universe.
Yes, I am being redundant – but past experience has convinced me that many of you laptop librarians will fire off snotty emails telling me I'm a fool for not knowing the Pats own the 17th overall selection. Oh, and one other piece of advice before firing off those "your an idiot" missives: There's this not-so-recent invention called Spell Check, and it might be worth exploring before you hit Send.
On that note, let's see what Rivera does now that he's on the clock – and give thanks that we're not turning back the clock to 1983, when "Spell Check" consisted of pulling out this very heavy book known as a dictionary and leafing through its vast contents.
1. Carolina Panthers – Aaron Rodgers(notes), QB: Did you really think the Cal portion of this column was complete? Rivera not only reveres his alma mater, but he has a thing for quarterbacks who are exceptionally accurate, marvelously mobile and coming off a Super Bowl MVP season. And while future Hall of Famers Tom Brady(notes) and Peyton Manning(notes) may be more accomplished, Rodgers has time on his side: Six years after leaving Cal and experiencing perhaps the most conspicuously uncomfortable draft day in NFL history, he's just 27 and seems to be getting better – which is kind of scary. All of that makes him the first guy out of the green room (yes, there is a UMD green room, and it makes Jimmy Kimmel's look boring; use your imagination) with an enthusiastic "Peace Out" for his peers.
2. Denver Broncos – Tom Brady, QB: Granted, Brady will be 34 by the start of the 2011 season (hell, the lead plaintiff in the players' antitrust lawsuit against the NFL may be 35 before football returns, but that's a different story), but that won't scare away new Broncos president John Elway from drafting the reigning MVP. Elway, remember, won two Super Bowls after his 37th birthday. At his postdraft press conference, Brady expresses his excitement about playing closer to his offseason home in L.A. and suggests that new head coach John Fox consider hiring "my former quarterbacks coach in New England." This goes over in the Mile High city like one of those infamous August snowfalls.
3. Buffalo Bills – Drew Brees(notes), QB: Though Manning is 35, that's not a daunting number in the Bills' war room, what with a general manager (Buddy Nix) who's more than twice Manning's age and an owner (Ralph Wilson) who was born during World War I. (Really.) But relocating to the Rust Belt isn't superappealing to Manning, and taking a page from younger brother Eli's playbook – with father Archie drawing up the formation – Peyton says he'll retire rather than shiver. Wilson relents, selecting the 32-year-old Brees, whose biggest problem with the move is that it will be very hard to sound convincing when he ultimately declares: "I needed Buffalo just as much as Buffalo needed me."
4. Cincinnati Bengals – Ben Roethlisberger(notes), QB: When Manning pulls the same power move on Bengals owner Mike Brown, a stalemate seems inevitable. But Brown, having already locked horns with Carson Palmer(notes), decides he doesn't have it in him and instead selects Big Ben, bringing a bona-fide Bengal-killer home to Ohio and robbing a division rival of its star quarterback. And for all you fantasy aficionados who question Roethlisberger's greatness, you'll have to take my word for it that the best personnel men in the business would rather have him than virtually anyone.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Peyton Manning, QB: Fifteen months removed from Kurt Warner's(notes) retirement, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt (who coached Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh) gets down on his knees and thanks the football gods for a third Hall of Famer. The first words out of Manning's mouth at the press conference: "I can't wait to start throwing to Larry Fitzgerald(notes), the best receiver in the game."
6. Cleveland Browns – Larry Fitzgerald, WR: Oops. Sorry, Peyton – Mike Holmgren, who coached Jerry Rice back in the day, can't resist the prospect of turning Fitzgerald loose in his West Coast Offense. This wouldn't quite heal the wounds from LeBron James' departure, but it would give the city another bona-fide superstar – and one who happens to be a consummate professional who is universally respected among his peers
7. San Francisco 49ers – Andrew Luck, QB: Given that everyone is eligible when it comes to the UMD, Luck's touching desire to spend another year in college is an afterthought, and there's little doubt that new Niners coach Jim Harbaugh would dress up in a Tree costume for the chance to land his former Stanford signal-caller. Things get a bit awkward when, upon making the short drive from Palo Alto to the Niners' Santa Clara training facility, Luck is greeted outside the lobby by Harbaugh, and the two hug for 45 seconds as R. Kelly's and Jay-Z's "Fiesta" blares in the background.
8. Tennessee Titans – Ndamukong Suh(notes), DT: Harkening back to the days when Albert Haynesworth(notes) was the league's most dominant interior lineman, the Titans snag the explosive, versatile Suh, who more than justified the hype accompanying his rookie season with the Lions. And don't get me started on the marketing possibilities in the Music City, where the Man in Black is looking down and smiling.
9. Dallas Cowboys –. Darrelle Revis(notes), CB: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son, Stephen, the team's vice president, nearly came to blows during an argument about whether to throw free-agent money at Deion Sanders in the mid-'90s. This time, picking Prime Time's heir as the game's pre-eminent shutdown corner is an easy call. The Joneses get a little squeamish at the postdraft press conference, however, when Revis says of opposing receivers: "I'll shut 'em down like a Cowboys Stadium usher on Super Sunday."
10. Washington Redskins – Matt Ryan(notes). QB: We all know the D.C. area goes completely to pieces when ice (or snow) arrives, so you can imagine the reaction when Matty Ice blows into town. The hysteria is warranted; Ryan is a grinder who desperately wants to be great and is determined to do things the right way. If Mike Shanahan can't have Rodgers, why not get the emerging star who reminds Rodgers of Rodgers?
11. Houston Texans – Clay Matthews(notes), LB: With apologies to 2009 NFL defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing(notes), the Texans pick the third-year ex-Southern California linebacker who hasn't tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Whereas Cushing struggled following his four-game suspension to start 2010, Matthews cranked up his already awesome game and helped the Packers win a championship. It doesn't hurt that Matthews' uncle, Bruce, was one of the best pro football players ever to call Houston home.
12. Minnesota Vikings – Josh Freeman(notes), QB: When I hung with Freeman two days before Super Bowl XLV at the cool sports-science testing lab that Gatorade had constructed in the media center, I reminded him how he'd repeatedly been written off as a "raw" prospect before the Bucs took him in the '09 draft. "You talk about labels, man," he said, rolling his eyes. "I was like, 'Have you even watched my film?' " Freeman was right and they were wrong: The burgeoning star clearly has "It," as evidenced by his seven fourth-quarter comeback victories in his first 23 starts. That is not a misprint, and Vikes coach Leslie Frazier just found a way to make Minnesota fans forget about Brett Favre(notes). I'm pretty sure even grumpy Fran Tarkenton approves of this pick.
13. Detroit Lions – Patrick Willis(notes), MLB: Monsters of the Midway? Meet the new Monster of Motown, as the selection of Willis gives head coach Jim Schwartz the defensive standard-bearer he so desperately craves. The departure of the 49ers' best player should be devastating to Harbaugh, but he's too busy swooning over Luck to notice.
14. St. Louis Rams – Sam Bradford(notes), QB: Speaking of distractions, Rams owner Stan Kroenke is a bit preoccupied during UMD VII, what with the Nuggets' playoff series vs. the Thunder and his recent purchase of English soccer club Arsenal. While sharing pints with esteemed Gunners fan Nick Hornby in a dimly lit pub, Kroenke gets a frantic international call from general manager Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who want to break down the franchise's options. Kroenke cuts them off and impatiently barks: "Just stick with the kid we've got – he's already on all the billboards." So Bradford, who hit the wall toward the end of his otherwise impressive rookie season, continues to hold the Rams' fortunes in his accurate passing hand.
15. Miami Dolphins – Adrian Peterson, RB: Dolphins coach Tony Sparano wants to run the ball at all costs, and now that general manager Jeff Ireland is back in Sparano's corner, taking the NFL's most complete and physical back is a given. It's all good until Peterson, while greeting the franchise's legion of famous minority owners, ends Venus Williams' tennis career and turns Jimmy Buffett into a former guitar player after shaking their hands.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – Philip Rivers(notes), QB: Jack Del Rio finally gives up on David Garrard(notes) after general manager Gene Smith plucks the prolific, savvy Rivers from the Chargers. The only downside is that Rivers, shortly after joining his new team, takes to the airwaves and trash-talks Jags fans for their lukewarm support in recent years.
17. Oakland Raiders – Chris Johnson: Two years ago, when I had Al Davis drafting the absurdly fast Titans back, some of you thought I was hating. Now – well, what's not to love? Upon joining the Silver and Black, Johnson shells out $5,000 to snatch No. 28 from defensive back Joe Porter(notes) and 10 grand to secure exclusive naming rights from cornerback Chris Johnson, who responds by changing his name to Chris Tressiete.
18. San Diego Chargers – DeMarcus Ware(notes), OLB: Talk about a value pick – thanks to the Cowboys' disastrous 2010 season, the best 3-4 outside linebacker in football slips to San Diego, prompting general manager A.J. Smith to proclaim that "the lights are out in America's Finest City once more." Actually, Smith says nothing of the sort; he's busy using his unparalleled diplomatic skills to solve the NFL's labor war.
19. New York Giants – Troy Polamalu(notes), S: Yes, he just turned 30, has been injury-plagued in recent years and didn't have the most pleasant of Super Sundays last February. But Polamalu still has immense value because a) he's tremendous and b) few defensive players have ever impacted a team so profoundly. Besides, since Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell bounced after the 1958 season, when have the Giants had a standout safety, let alone a great one?
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Michael Vick(notes), QB: The Ultimate Mock Draft has officially come full circle. In UMD I, with Vick coming off an NFC championship game appearance for the Falcons, I made him the No. 1 selection based on his raw talent, youth and potential. That looked more and more absurd as the years passed – until last season, when Vick's resurrection with the Eagles became the NFL's most compelling story. Granted Vick, who'll be 31 by the start of next season, is one off-the-field mistake away from putting his career in jeopardy. However, it's not like that will scare away the Mark Dominik/Raheem Morris regime, which enabled Aqib Talib(notes), signed LeGarrette Blount(notes) and seems to exhibit the kind of "morally casual attitude" that Boone referenced in "Animal House." So the Bucs bite on Vick, meaning he'll return to the Georgia Dome on an annual basis.
21. Kansas City Chiefs – Haloti Ngata(notes), DT: Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli gets a call from father-in-law Bill Parcells urging him to "keep it simple, stupid. Take the best big man available." That means the Ravens' Ngata, who is younger and fresher than the Patriots' Vince Wilfork(notes) and equally immovable. He's also the perfect guy, in theory, to break up potential fights between Pioli and coach Todd Haley.
22. Indianapolis Colts – Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), CB: Colts president Bill Polian takes the top player remaining on his board and gives Indy its first true shutdown corner since he arrived following the 1997 season. Big, physical, fast and smart, Asomugha is a highly desirable player who, once the lockout ends, will experience a real-life recruitment far better than getting picked in the Ultimate Mock Draft: The longtime Raiders standout will be an unrestricted free agent.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – Terrell Suggs(notes), OLB/DE: Though Suggs is no fan of that other NFL city in Pennsylvania, he can spread some brotherly love in Philly, where he'd be the most fearsome pass rusher of the Andy Reid era. Before heading off to Cannes to nurture his budding career as a movie-maker – yes, the perennial Ravens All-Pro is quite versatile – Sizzle lobbies Reid to replace Vick by trading for Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes).
24. New Orleans Saints – Calvin Johnson(notes), WR: Think the renovated Superdome could use a Megatron? Sean Payton does, and the combination of his offense and Johnson's skill set is truly a scary one. As an added bonus, Payton offers to let Johnson commute from his native Georgia, reasoning that "it's really not that big of a deal."
25. Seattle Seahawks – Joe Thomas(notes), OT: I nicknamed Thomas the "Vanilla Volcano" after watching the 6-feet-6, 312-pounder turn the Foundation Room at the Dallas House of Blues into his personal dance floor the night before Super Bowl XLV, imperiling the safety of various NFL players, Cowboys executives and A-list celebrities (sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Kutcher; pardon me, Ms. Diaz and young Mr. Jonas) in the process. He'd be the most explosive thing to hit the Evergreen State since Mt. St. Helens. The game's best tackle is a lockdown pass-protector and nasty drive-blocker who'd be a worthy heir to Walter Jones(notes). He also has excellent feet; just ask Ashton and Demi.
26. Baltimore Ravens – James Harrison(notes), OLB: As potent and productive as Harrison has been over the past few seasons, he hasn't gotten much UMD love, and the fact that he turns 33 next month – and that last year he threatened to retire in the wake of the league's crackdown on helmet shots – should make him a risky proposition. The Ravens, however, are hell-bent on winning now, before Ray Lewis(notes), the greatest defensive player of his era, finally calls it quits. The idea of pilfering Harrison from the arch-rival Steelers is too delicious for general manager Ozzie Newsome to pass up, and it would make what is undeniably the league's craziest huddle even more insane in the membrane.
27. Atlanta Falcons – Mario Williams(notes), DE: After watching the Falcons secure the NFC's top seed in 2010, only to get eviscerated by Rodgers in the playoffs, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith know exactly what they need: a big, menacing defensive lineman who can get to the quarterback and make game-changing plays. Williams' sack numbers were down last season, but the 6-6, 295-pounder is just 26 and should be an elite player for years to come. Dimitroff and Smith resist the temptation to select another talented defender named Williams – Packers cornerback Tramon, who made an indelible impression at the Georgia Dome last January.
28. New England Patriots – Marcell Dareus, DT: Isn't that whole Bill Belichick-Nick Saban connection special? Absolutely, but in this case, it wouldn't matter who Dareus' college coach was. The former Alabama interior lineman is a beast who'll take the Patriots' defensive revival to the next level and make inside linebacker Jerod Mayo's(notes) life very, very good for a long, long time. And perhaps he can lecture former Tide teammate Mark Ingram on being discreet, a favorite Belichick/Saban subject.
29. Chicago Bears – Jay Cutler(notes), QB: What, you thought that whole Stand By Your Man thing after the NFC championship game was just an act? For better or worse, general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith are inextricably tied to the strong-armed quarterback with the most controversial sore knee of the 2010 season, and they proclaim their devotion for all the world to see. As Cutler ascends the podium, bloggers everywhere break down his gait to determine if he's limping enough for their satisfaction.
30.New York Jets – Dwight Freeney(notes), DE: Because Freeney is 31 and relies so much on his unrivaled quickness, it's tempting to think his UMD value is diminishing. But age doesn't scare away Rex Ryan, who treats every season like it's his last and loves nothing more than elite defenders who detest quarterbacks. The thought of the league's best pass rusher joining his defense renders Ryan speechless, so ESPN's Sal Paolantonio is dispatched to get Jets middle linebacker Bart Scott's(notes) reaction to Freeney's arrival. Scott's two-word response? Well, you know …
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – Andre Johnson(notes), WR: Mike Tomlin loves defense, and he strongly considers mammoth tackles Wilfork and Darnell Dockett(notes) at this spot. The thought of adding a great playmaker like Johnson, however, is too enticing to resist. The Texans' wideout is one of the league's most understated stars, and his humility and toughness will be embraced in Steeltown. And a three-receiver formation featuring Johnson, deep threat Mike Wallace(notes) and the punishing and productive Hines Ward(notes) sounds more fabulous than Bruno Tonioli, Ward's biggest fan.
32. Green Bay Packers – LaMarr Woodley(notes), LB: As I learned last year, Woodley isn't overly humble when it comes to assessing his virtues – but the man isn't lying, either. Ted Thompson is one of the game's top talent evaluators, but it doesn't take a genius to see that Woodley is the type of punishing playmaker who'd be warmly received in any town. In Titletown, he'd be the greatest thing to happen to Dom Capers' defense since Greg Lloyd. And let's face it: In Ultimate Mock Draftville, having lost their franchise quarterback, all those Cheeseheads can use a little pick-me-up.
- Ron Rivera