With the 2013 NFL draft right around the corner, it's time to project, select, and open myself up to ridicule with my final mock draft of the year.
This is one of the most unusual drafts I can remember. Not only are there no "sexy" picks at the top as there were last year, but you can even pick the guys at the top apart if you look long and hard enough. The primary position of need for many of the teams at the top of any draft is quarterback, but the talent at that position this year is questionable, at best. You've seen how some of those teams have responded -- the Chiefs picked up Alex Smith, the Raiders got Matt Flynn, the Cardinals acquired Carson Palmer, and the Bills nabbed Kevin Kolb.
None of these players really excite a fan base, but many of them have the potential to act as bridge starters for two different scenarios: Either their new teams will select developmental quarterbacks later in the draft, or they'll shine it on to 2014 and hope someone pops out as an elite prospect. As a result, and despite the fact that quarterbacks are overdrafted all the time, I am projecting just one quarterback taken in the first round -- West Virginia's Geno Smith, who in my mind is the only player at the position currently worthy of a first-round grade.
From there, things get very interesting positionally. I don't remember a draft class in which so many safeties could go in the first round as legitimate game-changers, and that reflects current defensive trends in the NFL. More and more teams are playing nickel and dime as their base packages very frequently, which has them looking at players that would once be called fringe defenders as functional starters. In addition, those multi-positional playmakers who were once thought to be jacks of all trades and masters of none are now highly valued precisely because of their full-field versatility.
And with all that said, this draft is strongest in the two most fundamentally important parts of any NFL team. If you're looking to improve on either side of the line, this is the draft for you. Here is the draft for me, based more on player value than what I think teams will actually do, though that does factor in. One thing I'm not doing is projecting trades, though I could easily see several of them happening in the first round.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
While Luke Joeckel would also be a very solid pick here, the Chiefs would be wise to go with the player with the most pure athletic upside, and that may well be Fisher. Mauling as a run blocker and with a great deal of potential as a pass-protector, Fisher could be the best overall player in this draft class.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
The former track star from Ghana has done a lot in a football sense in a very short time. He still needs a lot of developmental work, but new head coach Gus Bradley needs an anchor-point pass-rusher who can also move inside and play tackle. Gap versatility is an underrated part of Ansah's game, and he fits Bradley's prototype.
3. Oakland Raiders: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
The Raiders are in need of ... well, just about everything, but what could really benefit their defense is the kind of versatile disruptor Richard Seymour once was. Floyd has similar traits to Seymour when Seymour came out of Georgia, and the upside for Floyd could land him in similarly rarefied air over time.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
The Eagles' pass protection issues have been clear and obvious as Jason Peters' body has been breaking down, and in Chip Kelly's high-volume offense, they'll be in need of a multi-faceted blocker who can not only hold up in a high-volume offense, but establish physical dominance at the point.
5. Detroit Lions: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
The Lions throw the ball more than any other NFL team, and with Jeff Backus retired, Matthew Stafford needs consistent protection on his blind side. Johnson still needs some technique work, but he's the most purely athletic tackle I've seen since Joe Thomas came out of Wisconsin, and he fits a fast, multiple offense the Lions would like to create over time.
6. Cleveland Browns: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton loves physical defensive backs, and Milliner fits the bill. He's not the best pure pass defender at the position this year (that honor goes to Houston's D.J. Hayden), but he's the most well-rounded player. And in the tough AFC North, Milliner's ability to jack people up in the run game is an important attribute.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Though the Cardinals have Carson Palmer as a short-term option, new head coach Bruce Arians likes mobile quarterbacks who can improvise and make things happen on the run. Smith has those abilities, and his nascent sense of the passing game could have him taking a short-term redshirt as Palmer does his thing early on. By the end of his rookie year, however, Smith could be a perfect fit in Arians' projected offense.
8. Buffalo Bills: Dion Jordan, OLB/DE, Oregon
New Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is a big fan of multiplicity and versatility, and no defensive player is more versatile that Jordan, who played all over the place for the Ducks at 226 pounds, and could do a lot more damage at his current weight of 250. Edge-rushing, drops into coverage, even covering slot receivers -- Jordan can do it all.
9. New York Jets: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The Jets need just about everything, but they must give Mark Sanchez more targets to help him out. Austin is one of the most dynamic playmakers to enter the draft in recent years, and the Jets could use him everywhere from Pistol running back, to slot receiver, to pure wide out. He also adds a dangerous dimension to the team's return game.
10. Tennessee Titans: D.J. Hayden, CB, Houston
The Titans could use this pick to get some more weapons for quarterback Jake Locker, but it would be even wiser to grab the most attractive pass defender in the 2013 class. Fully recovered from the heart vein injury that nearly killed him last year. Hayden has seen his name shoot up many mocks as we catch up to his tape.
11. San Diego Chargers: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
Offensive tackle is San Diego's biggest need, and they could easily go with a cornerback here, but in Mike McCoy's offense, guards must be able to pull and move, and Cooper is by far the most athletic guard on the board -- and in recent years.
12. Miami Dolphins: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
Mingo needs work on his hand moves and counters, but his blinding speed would add a new dimension to Miami's defense.
13. New York Jets: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Yes, the Jets need a pass rusher. But Rex Ryan's defense has had a flat since Kris Jenkins went south, and Lotulelei possesses a rare combination of pure inline power and penetrative ability. He's a franchise-level anchor for any defense.
14. Carolina Panthers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
Ron Rivera gets perhaps the best gap-crashing tackle in the draft. Certainly, no tackle on the board matches Richardson for sheer first-step quickness.
15. New Orleans Saints: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
In Rob Ryan's new defense, Saints players will be asked to move around and be more multiple. One thing Ryan can't spackle together with scheme: The kind of pass-rush skill Jones brings to the table.
16. St. Louis Rams: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher was once a tough safety for USC and the Chicago Bears, and he's always liked those types of players. Vaccaro is a rangy player with a serious attitude. He tends to overdo that aspect of his play at times, but Fisher has proven willing to take those types of risks.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
With Mike Wallace off to Miami, Ben Roethlisberger is in need of a new primary target. A raw player from a route perspective, Patterson can nonetheless use his physical style and downfield speed to add a different dimension to Pittsburgh's passing game.
18. Dallas Cowboys: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
Would Jerry Jones actually make a smart, strong, sensible pick and help keep his quarterback upright with the most physical offensive lineman available? If he wants to preserve the newly-repaid Tony Romo, he'd better.
19. New York Giants: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Eifert has the kind of speed, agility, vertical dynamism, and versatility to give Eli Manning the kind of tight end weapon he's wanted -- and hasn't had -- since Jeremy Shockey's glory days.
20. Chicago Bears: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
The Bears have a clear and obvious need on the offensive line, and new head coach Marc Trestman will feature a quicker passing attack combined with interesting rushing concepts. Fluker is a big right tackle, but his pass setup is better than people give him credit for, and he can just maul people in the run game.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State
Surprised? Well, it's the Bengals. Watson has actually impressed a lot of NFL teams with his athleticism, and though he's very raw (especially in space), he's got enough going for him to either replace Andre Smith in the short term or eventually become an exciting left tackle if Smith is re-signed.
22. St. Louis Rams: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
Clearly, Sam Bradford needs targets, because we say that every year. Hopkins s a compelling receiver who's faster than people think, physical enough to get things done in the short and intermediate areas, and an impressive understanding of route concepts.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Robert Woods, WR, USC
Who needs targets more than Bradford? Christian Ponder, for one. Woods is an underrated deep receiver because he caught passes from Matt Barkley, who didn't throw deep consistently. What he did for Barkley is what he can do for Ponder, who doesn't do much downfield, either -- run multiple underneath stuff and help to define Minnesota's passing attack. Woods has a lot of Reggie Wayne elements to his game and could be a top-level NFL receiver down the road.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Datone Jones, DL, UCLA
Chuck Pagano learned the value of multi-gap defenders during his days in Baltimore, and he wants to install the same overall concepts in Indy. Jones can play everywhere from nose shade to pass-rushing end, and reminds me of Cory Redding, who had some outstanding seasons for the Ravens.
25. Minnesota Vikings: Matt Elam, S, Florida
Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield took his talents to Seattle, and the Vikings will miss him in a division where multi-receiver sets are the order of the day. Elam plays the slot very, very well, but his X-factor is his aggressiveness on the field, which brings former Colts standout safety Bob Sanders to mind.
26. Green Bay Packers: Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International
The Packers set their secondary up with versatile players who do different things against passing attacks inside the numbers. Not only is Cyprien a dynamic hitter, but he also covers from sideline to sideline in deep coverage. One of the most underrated and interesting players in the first round.
27. Houston Texans: Keenan Allen, WR, California
Andre Johnson has asked for help, and the Texans need to give it to him. In Houston's balanced attack, Allen could excel with a skill set that brings to mind a faster version of Anquan Boldin.
28. Denver Broncos: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
The 13-3 Broncos lost in the first round of the playoffs because they didn't have consistent coverage, and Champ Bailey looked like he was encased in Carbonite. Trufant has the short-to-deep coverage ability to rectify that issue. Really started to impress teams once he got away from Washington's horrible defense and competed at the Senior Bowl.
29. New England Patriots: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
As NFL teams look to acquire bigger, more physical cornerbacks, Rhodes will be a very intriguing option. He fits the Patriots in a couple ways -- he would give them immediate press-coverage improvement, and he could move inside to safety for certain schemes.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Cornellius "Tank" Carradine, DE, Florida State
Carradine suffered a serious knee injury last season, but his tape made him the best pass rusher in this draft class, if you ask me. He appears fully recovered, and the Falcons are enough in need of a consistent pass disruptor to take a shot.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
The 49ers fielded two different defenses in 2012 -- the one where Justin Smith was healthy, and the one where he wasn't. The version where he wasn't provided very little pass pressure, which underlined Smith's importance to the team. Williams reminds of a rawer version of Smith in that he plays with ridiculous strength and leverage, and takes on double teams with authority.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State
The Ravens lost Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis to free agency and retirement, which gives Ozzie Newsome the ability to change his paradigm when it comes to inside linebackers. More and more, the NFL requires those players to exhibit speed and agility in a 360-degree sense, and Brown would fit the bill.