While there are two more days of drills at the scouting combine, most of the media has called it a wrap, and all the players are done talking. All the offensive players have their times in the bag, and the defensive linemen and linebackers went at it Monday, which means that we're just that much closer to the post-combine evaluation process.
The draft positions in our first mock draft of 2011 are affected by combine work to a degree; there are players like Oregon State's Stephen Paea and Illinois' Mikel Leshoure whose exploits in Lucas Oil Stadium pushed them into the first round. Mocks will change as we go through the process, but our basic philosophy is to try and get into the heads of every front office as opposed to imagining who we would pick.
Here's the top half of the first round; picks 17-32 can be found here.
1. Carolina Panthers - Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
New Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is used to dealing with mercurial but talented defensive linemen through his stints in Chicago and San Diego. That's one reason that many have Carolina taking Nick Fairley first overall. Fairley may pop off the tape more than Dareus does, but when you've hit bottom like the Panthers have, the best way to dig yourself out is to find the safer picks with the most consistent play. Dareus is a more complete player. He can defend the run with more impact and he's good enough in pass rush to help a team with a solid overall pressure concept. At 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds, he can kick in just about anywhere on any type of line, and when you're trying to rebuild a team from scratch, that kind of versatility is crucial.
2. Denver Broncos - Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
When new Broncos head coach John Fox took over the Panthers almost a decade ago, he built his 4-3 defense around a mountain of a pass rusher by the name of Julius Peppers(notes). Fox has a lot of work ahead of him in Denver, as he's switching to the 4-3 from the 3-4. It took Bowers awhile to put it all together at Clemson, but his 15.5 sacks in 2010, plus his otherworldly game tape, speak to the kind of talent that made Peppers unblockable for a long time.
3. Buffalo Bills - Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
The Bills featured one of the worst run defenses of the modern era, and adding
Fairley or Robert Quinn to their front line would help a great deal. But there's an interesting wrinkle in any Cam Newton-to-Buffalo story: Bills head coach Chan Gailey is the best in the league at transitioning option quarterbacks to the pros. He's done it with everyone from Kordell Stewart to Tyler Thigpen(notes). But Gailey has never had anyone with Newton's raw talent. Giving Gailey a quarterback built like Calvin Johnson(notes), and who can throw 50 yards on a rope without a wind-up, could redefine the position as we know it.
4. Cincinnati Bengals - Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
You might see the Bengals looking hard at Blaine Gabbert with the fourth overall pick; it depends on how far Carson Palmer(notes) wants to take his "I'm going to retire if you guys don't cut bait" trip. Assuming they can get Palmer (or some other quarterback) on board, Fairley would fit the Bengals to a T. He's a ridiculously talented player with discipline and motivational issues. But having Fairley and Domata Peko(notes) on the same line would be a major problem for offenses. Fairley is as disruptive a tackle as has been seen in recent years (Mr. Suh excepted, of course).
5. Arizona Cardinals - Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
With Kurt Warner(notes) in tow, the Cardinals were a Super Bowl contender. When he retired, and Ken Whisenhunt's team hadn't developed a contingency plan, the offense atrophied and Larry Fitzgerald's(notes) productivity plummeted. Though Gabbert played in a spread offense at Missouri, he has all the attributes required of an NFL quarterback. He's great when throwing in motion, has command of the field and has the arm to make any throw. Gabbert didn't throw at the combine, but his game tape makes up for it.
6. Cleveland Browns - Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
The Browns have needs all over their defense, but with the top-tier linemen gone and Peterson still on the board, it would be tough for Cleveland to pass this up. Peterson is the best player and safest pick in this draft, a shutdown corner that also plays the run well and has limitless NFL potential. With Joe Haden(notes) and T.J. Ward(notes) already in their secondary, the Browns could go from one of the worst to one of the best defensive backfields in a big hurry.
7. San Francisco 49ers - Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
The 49ers are turning their defense into something special, but there are still issues with getting to the quarterback consistently. Quinn missed his 2010 season as a result of the UNC agent scandal, but the tape from 2009 showed a player with great burst, despite the fact that he was often late off the snap. With the right kind of coaching, Quinn could be a real force in this kind of defense.
8. Tennessee Titans - A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
What do you do if you can't get a marquee quarterback in the draft? Surround the quarterbacks you do have (and in Tennessee's case, it's anyone's guess who THAT's going to be) with the best receivers possible. A dominate player since his freshman year, Green and Kenny Britt(notes) would combine to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
9. Dallas Cowboys -- Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
Some may think that this is a bit of an overdraft, but when you watch Amukamara -- and when you get a pulse of the Cowboys' current pass defense -- it's an easy connection to make. Amukamara still has a few refining points that need to be dealt with, but he's a nonpareil athlete and a much better cornerback than he seems to be getting credit for. The recent speculation about moving him to safety makes little sense. He is a lockdown corner in the making, and the only reason he doesn't get more love in this draft class is because Peterson is so amazing.
10. Washington Redskins - Cameron Jordan, DE, Cal
Brian Orakpo(notes) can't do it alone. The dynamic pass rusher has become a real force, but he needs someone who can help him disrupt in Washington's hybrid defenses. Jordan would be the perfect foil. He's tough to block against the run or pass, inside or outside, and he's already played in a 3-4 defense. So there will be none of the incessant whining the Redskins have heard from certain other defensive linemen.
11. Houston Texans - Von Miller, OLB, Texas A & M
Yes, the Texans need cornerback help. But Wade Phillips' version of the 3-4 defense is less hybrid and more purist. Rushers off the edge are at a premium, as Phillips showed us in San Diego with Shawne Merriman(notes) and in Dallas with DeMarcus Ware(notes). Miller is one of the fastest players off the snap in recent years, and he can also stunt inside to provide further issues for enemy quarterbacks. Miller is learning to defend the run and drop back in coverage consistently, which means that his value could grow.
12. Minnesota Vikings - Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
The Vikings are getting old all over, and they need a quarterback in a class where the few great guys will already be gone. So, the wise thing to do will be to turn toward a secondary that has trouble against the pass, even with the great pass rush from their front seven. Smith is an underrated inline cover man with questionable ball skills (he gets more deflections than interceptions), but great agility.
13. Detroit Lions - Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
The Lions have their front seven sewn up for the next few years with dynamo Ndamukong Suh(notes) leading the way, but they also need help on the offensive line. Protecting injury-prone Matthew Stafford(notes) will be job one if the Lions hope to stand with the Packers, Bears and Vikings in the NFC North. All three rivals have killer pass rush players, and that's where Carimi comes in. He's still got to shore up his second-level run blocking, but he's the best pass protector in this class, with a smooth, aggressive kick-step and drop back that brings a slightly less talented Joe Thomas(notes) to mind.
14. St. Louis Rams -- Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
Now that Josh McDaniels is taking over the Rams' offense, Sam Bradford(notes) will finally be able to throw a ball longer than 5 yards in the air. Who is he going to throw it to? If Jones is there at 14 -- and after his tremendous combine, he might not be -- he'd be the perfect foil for Bradford. Jones is quick, big, aggressive upfield, and a nightmare to bring down. He could be the evolutionary version of Greg Jennings(notes) -- and he might be even better than that.
15. Miami Dolphins - Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
With Ronnie Brown(notes) and Ricky Williams(notes) wearing down and the ‘Fins wanting to stick with a run-first offense, the only way for a smooth transition to happen is for the team to grab the kind of running back who can do everything, and a lot of it. That's Ingram, who doesn't blow you away with any one particular attribute, but can produce in so many different ways. Comparing him to Emmitt Smith is a bit much at this point, but there is something Emmitt-like about Ingram in that he's not the biggest/fastest/strongest, but he just may have enough of every attribute to be the best.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars - Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
Last year, the Jags took Cal's Tyson Alualu(notes) about a round before anyone expected, and Alualu thrived on a Jags team that had spent far too much indiscriminately on defensive linemen. After all those draft picks and all those dollars, sacks are still a problem. Clayborn will fortify any defense he's in; he defends the run whether inside or outside, and he has an array of hand moves that make him very difficult to block consistently.