The scouting combine is done for another year, many pro days are in the bag, and it's time to get a better sense of need assessment per team in the chaos the NFL now faces. Obviously, with free agency a non-factor as long as the lockout lasts, we're left with the notion that drafting for need may be a bigger factor this year than it has been in others. Teams that may have been reasonably willing to give up multiple picks for, say, Kevin Kolb might be off the market now, because Kolb may not have time to come in and learn a new system if the NFL's work stoppage drags on into training camp time.
As such, the picks in this particular mock are generally attuned more to team needs than you'd normally find; usually, there's more of a balance between need and best player available. And once in awhile, a talented player will drop, and that becomes the priority. Picks 1-16 reside on this page; the second half of the first round can be found here.
1. Carolina Panthers — Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
Under 2010 rules, the pass defense/return ability combo presented by Patrick Peterson might make the LSU cornerback the most appealing player in his draft class. But with the NFL looking to make kickoffs more safe (and less productive) in this year's league meetings, the Panthers may be wise to look at another do-it-all player in Dareus. While he doesn't present the kind of explosive pass-rush skills exhibited by Auburn's Nick Fairley, Dareus is a more consistent player with the ability to play multiple positions along the line, and his consistency would give the Panthers, who are in need of major resets at many positions, one less thing to worry about. The Panthers already had an underrated defense last season; Dareus could be the piece that puts it over the top.
2. Denver Broncos — Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
With former Panthers head coach John Fox looking to switch Denver's old 3-4 to a 4-3, and having little in the way of personnel for such a switch, the thought is that Denver should go heavy on the best defensive line class we may have ever seen. But with all that depth comes the ability to get bargains in later rounds, and Denver has an equal need to get younger in the secondary. Not only would Peterson upgrade Denver's aging defensive backfield, but the chance to get coached up by Champ Bailey could make him scary good in a short time.
3. Buffalo Bills — Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Option quarterbacks have a long history of washing out in the NFL, which is the one thing that keeps Newton out of the top pick in this draft. At the combine and his pro day Newton showed two things — that he has the arm to make every throw, and that those throws aren't always going to go where they should. But from Kordell Stewart to Tyler Thigpen, nobody in the NFL has a better history of taking spread offense quarterbacks and putting them in positions to succeed than Bills coach Chan Gailey. Under the right conditions, and given the chance to grow, Newton has the raw ability to redefine the position.
4. Cincinnati Bengals — A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
So … the sensible thing to do when your franchise quarterback says that he'd rather retire than play another down for your franchise would be to draft the best quarterback available. However, since we're talking about the Bengals, and common sense rarely hits this team on draft day, the thing to do in this case is to call Carson Palmer's bluff and give him the best receiver in the draft — despite the fact that more pressing needs reside elsewhere. We have no idea who might actually be throwing to Green, but there's no question that Green's agility, straight-line speed, and freakish vertical ability would make him an elite weapon under the right circumstances. It's just that with the Bengals, we always have to wonder if these are the right circumstances…
5. Arizona Cardinals — Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Gabbert would be an amazing fit in Arizona for a number of reasons — schematically, it's a perfect match. At Missouri, Gabbert ran mostly shotgun sets with a high percentage of trips and bunch formations; quick clearing routes designed to get multiple receivers open in a hurry. Few teams run more trips and bunch in the NFL than Ken Whisenhunt's Cardinals, and if you watch the second half of Super Bowl XLIII, you'll see a Kurt Warner-led offense that doesn't look all that different than Mizzou's power spread. Add in Gabbert's penchant for making accurate stick throws at a better rate than any other quarterback in this class, and you have the answer to Arizona's post-Warner quarterback woes.
6. Cleveland Browns — Von Miller, OLB, Texas A & M
It wouldn't be surprising if the Browns took a good, hard look at Julio Jones here; team president Mike Holmgren is known to love big, toolsy receivers, and Jones is a lot like a better version of Koren Robinson if Robinson had ever had his head on straight. However, getting things turned around in Cleveland to compete with Pittsburgh and Baltimore has to be about the defense, specifically about the pass rush. Miller is an absolute scud missile when it comes to disrupting the quarterback, and his willingness to drop into coverage during the Senior Bowl week showed coaches and personnel people just how committed he is to being an all-purpose linebacker.
7. San Francisco 49ers — Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
A knee injury prevented Bowers from working out at the combine, and teams won't be able to add to what they see on tape until Bowers goes through his paces at Clemson's April 1 pro day. If his present conditions match up the violent tackler and potential pass rusher he was in college, a team like the 49ers, always seemingly needing line help, could snap him up right here. If not, he could drop quickly.
8. Tennessee Titans — Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Fairley's another X-factor player with a great deal to consider. It's doubtful that he'll slip out of the top 10 because his skill as a pass-rushing tackle is so valuable, but there are red flags about everything from his dirty play on the field, to his conditioning, to his status as a "one-year wonder." The Titans are used to getting results out of mercurial tackles with their own agendas (hello, Mr. Haynesworth); perhaps Fairley can out-produce whatever headaches he provides.
9. Dallas Cowboys — Prince Amukamara, DB, Nebraska
Needs along the offensive line are obvious, but don't forget what happened to Dallas pass coverage last year. Mike Jenkins fell into a bottomless pit of bad coverage last year, and Terence Newman may be a salary casualty. Some say that Amukamara's skills translate better to safety, but they may be underselling his tremendous speed in man coverage and underrated ability to turn and run with fast receivers.
10. Washington Redskins — Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
If Jones lasts this long after his amazing combine performance (and that's a big if), the Redskins would be nuts to pass on a player with his ability and determination. He blew away the field in Lucas Oil Stadium with a broken foot, and played through the 2010 season with a broken hand. On a team with too many "me-first" guys and a franchise that has lost its way for the better part of a decade, Jones would be the perfect addition — on and off the field.
11. Houston Texans — Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri
One thing needed in every Wade Phillips defense is that pure, knife-edge, dominant pass-rusher off the edge. In San Diego, it was Shawne Merriman. In Dallas, DeMarcus Ware. Mario Williams led the Texans with 8.5 sacks in an injury-plagued season, and Phillips has already said that he sees no huge role change for Williams, but another feature of Phillips' defenses is the complementary pass rusher. So, whether Williams or Smith would be playing the role of Shaun Phillips or Anthony Spencer, the word is out on Smith — he's a dynamite pass disruptor with better hand moves than most in this class, and a rare sense of how to slip into line gaps. With Williams and Smith at the line, Houston's horrible secondary might not be hung out to dry so often.
12. Minnesota Vikings — Cameron Jordan, DE, California
The quarterback need is obvious, and word that the Vikings are working Jake Locker certainly points to that. But there are rumblings along that defensive line that's been so stout for a number of years. The Williams wall is getting old, and Jared Allen fell off in production. Ray Edwards will be the future star of the Vikings' front four, and Jordan would be the perfect bookend, because he's dynamic off the edge, but can also disrupt inside.
13. Detroit Lions — Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
The Lions are closer to contention than at any time since Matt Millen set the entire franchise ablaze, but there are still issues under a much savvier front office. One of the first points of order is to get the kind of left tackle who can keep Matthew Stafford upright and (hopefully) healthy. Jeff Backus was a warrior through the lean years, but Castonzo would bring a serious boost to the Lions' patchwork offensive line in run and pass protection. Like most O-line prospects from Boston College, he's technically sound, very powerful, and enjoys knocking the snot out of defenders trying to attack his quarterback.
14. St. Louis Rams — Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
So, with Julio Jones taking himself out of reach of the team that most needed him with his unreal combine performance, where do the Rams turn? To a defense that could use some line depth despite Fred Robbins' miracle season and James Hall's continued production. When Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo ran the New York Giants' defense, he did it with an ungodly rotation of linemen that included Michael Strahan and "should-have-been-Super-Bowl-XLII-MVP" Justin Tuck. Quinn may drop to the Rams under the right circumstances after missing the entire 2010 season in the UNC agent scandal, and if there's one guy who would know how to maximize his talents, it's Spagnuolo.
15. Miami Dolphins — Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Another bastion of constant quarterback need, but the 'Fins now have a more glaring concern. In a run-heavy offense, it really helps to have the kind of feature back who can play on all three downs, and that's exactly what Ingram is. He doesn't have blowaway speed, but a quick look at his game tape will show you that when it comes to gap sense, second-level burst, blocking, quick catches for key gains, and all the other little things that make great backs great, Ingram has those key points to a very high degree.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars — J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
After spending millions of dollars and multiple high draft picks on guys like Quentin Groves, Derrick Harvey, and the too-late version of Aaron Kampman, the Jags may be forced to go back to the well and pick up another toolsy, potentially dynamic defender with game tape that raises questions. Watt blew people away with his athleticism at the combine, and he's a real missile on the field, but he doesn't always play as fast as he looks, he's not always a sure tackler, and stringer tackles can re-direct him out of a play. On the bright side, he's a very smart and sure player with the versatility to star for a team that can't seem to decide, year to year, what kinds of fronts it wants to run.